MADRID -- Spain's magistrate associations and main opposition party called Thursday for the country's equality minister to resign after she accused judges of “machismo” for reducing prison sentences under a new sexual aggression law that was never intended to have that effect.
The “sexual liberty” law made sexual consent, or a lack of it, a key determinant in assault cases and revised the range of potential minimum and maximum prison terms, inadvertently making it possible for some convicted individuals to have their sentences reduced on appeal.
The legislation, popularly known as the “Only yes means yes” law, came into force last month. Now, one of Equality Minister Irene Montero’s signature projects is threatening to prove politically damaging.
Revelations this week of the reduced sentences in at least 15 cases outraged the minister and supporters of the law, who argued that Spain’s judges needed more training to overcome ingrained gender biases.
Montero accused some judges of not obeying the law, adding that the United Nations has said systematic sexism can lead jurists to misinterpret laws.
“The problem is that we have judges who are not upholding the law,” she said, arguing that sexist stereotypes blind some judges to seeing gender violence for the crime it is.
Judges who reduced sex crime sentences argue they were required to rule in the favor of defendants if the laws under which they were originally convicted have the potential penalties changed.
In one case, a Madrid court recently lowered the sentence of a man convicted of sexually abusing his 13-year-old stepdaughter from eight to six years. In another, a court in southern Granada took two years off a 13-year sentence given to a man who threatened his ex-wife with a knife and raped her.
Opposition parties and magistrate groups were infuriated by Montero's remarks and blame the left-wing government and its backers in Parliament for passing a poorly drafted law. Two magistrate groups and the conservative Popular Party called for Montero to step down.
Ángeles Carmona, member of Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary and president of its Observatory of Gender and Domestic Violence, noted that more than half of Spain’s judges are women and that all are required to undergo special training in gender violence.
Carmona said that her observatory had warned lawmakers of flaws in the writing of the sexual consent legislation and that Montero’s criticism of judges risked undermining women’s trust in the justice system.
“We had already issued a warning in our report that what is happening could take place,” Carmona said. “(But) the justice system is not sexist; it is not part of the patriarchy. The judges are applying the law in impeccable fashion.”
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appealed for calm and urged the judiciary to reach a consensus on how such case appeals are handled.
The new gender violence legislation was drawn up in response to the furor sparked by a gang-rape case during the 2016 San Fermin bull-running festival in Pamplona.
Initially, the five people charged were found guilty of sexual abuse but not rape, as the victim wasn’t deemed to have objected to the assault. The sentences prompted widespread protests. Spain’s Supreme Court later overruled lower courts and sentenced the five to 15 years in prison for rape.
A lawyer for one of the five says he now plans to seek a reduction in his client's sentence.
Montero is a member of the far-left Unidas Podemos (United We Can) group, which is the junior member in a coalition government with Sánchez’s Socialists. The coalition is struggling to remain united until Spain's general election next year.
Some fellow government officials have recommended revising the sexual consent law, an idea Montero opposes.
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.