Spanish Judges Return Fire After Contentious Sexual Assault Ruling

A protest in Pamplona, Spain, this weekend, after a court sentenced five men to nine years each in prison for sexual abuse in what many considered a gang rape that demanded a much harsher punishment.

MADRID — Judges in Spain defended the country’s judicial system, after mass protests extended into the weekend in Pamplona, Spain, against what many saw as a light sentence in a sexual assault case.

On Saturday, more than 35,000 people gathered in the heart of Pamplona to protest a court sentence that found five men guilty of sexually abusing a woman in 2016, but not of raping her, during the city’s famous bull-running festival.

Large protests also took place in Madrid and other cities after Thursday’s ruling, which has been seen as a landmark case over women’s rights in Spain.

The Pamplona case has turned into a Spanish version of the #MeToo movement. A Spanish hashtag, #Cuéntalo, which can be translated as “tell your story,” has gone viral in recent days, used by women, including prominent journalists, writers and politicians, to talk about their own harassment or assault experiences.

At the trial, the prosecution had sought a nearly 23-year sentence for gang rape and other charges. Instead, the five men, who called themselves the “manada,” a term often used to refer to a wolf pack, were each given nine years in prison for sex abuse.

Under Spain’s criminal code, rape must involve violence or intimidation, and the woman was portrayed during the trial as having consented to unprotected sex. That led protesters to denounce what they called a patriarchal judiciary amid signs reading, “Do we have to die to prove rape?”

On Saturday, an association of Spanish judges issued a statement calling for the resignation of Rafael Catalá, the Spanish justice minister, for making “unacceptable declarations” that they said undermined the independence of the judiciary. Mr. Catalá initially called for “respect toward legal sentences,” but following the protests, he questioned the handling of the case.

After Thursday’s verdict, the Spanish government said it planned to review how sex assault is defined in Spain’s criminal code, which dates from 1995. “Spain has changed in many ways since then,” Mr. Catalá said in an interview on Cadena Ser, a radio station.

The justice minister suggested that judges should be trained to take account of social sensitivities, and he also urged Spain’s judicial watchdog to review the stance of one of the three judges who ruled in Pamplona, after he called for the five men to be absolved.

But the head of that watchdog group, Carlos Lesmes, a justice on the Supreme Court, firmly rejected such criticism as an unjustified attempt to discredit the judiciary.

While allowing that “every legal decision is without a doubt subject to public criticism,” Mr. Lesmes said that “when the criticisms are dismissive and come from people who hold public responsibilities, that seriously undermines the trust that our judicial system deserves to receive from citizens.”

The judges also noted that Spain’s legal system allowed the victim, whose name has not been disclosed, to appeal the ruling before a regional court and, if she wishes, to Spain’s Supreme Court.

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