Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez is engulfed in a political storm after a sexual consent law introduced by his government resulted in sex offenders being released early from prison.
Sánchez was facing growing calls on Monday to modify the “only yes means yes” law, which was widely praised for seeking to stop victims being pressured over questions of consent in court. But the law has unexpectedly led to the prison sentences of some dangerous criminals being cut, sparking public outrage.
Sánchez’s ability to respond is limited by his coalition partner, the radical left Podemos group, which counts the law as one of its ministers’ key achievements and is resisting significant changes.
The reduced prison terms have turned the law into a liability for Sánchez at the start of an election year when he is seeking another term in office, fuelling attacks from rightwing critics who accuse him of undermining the rule of law. The opposition People’s party says more than 250 sex offenders have had their sentences reduced.
On Monday, Isabel Rodríguez, the government’s spokesperson, gave the strongest indication yet of Sánchez’s willingness to move, saying the law was having “undesired effects” and that technical work was under way to see if any “tweaks” were needed.
But Podemos, whose votes Sánchez needs to pass legislation in parliament, continued to stand in the way, insisting the problem was not the law but the way it is being applied by judges.
The consent legislation was introduced in the wake of a national scandal over the lenient sentences handed to five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the bull-running festival in Pamplona in 2016.
A lower court found them guilty of the lesser crime of sexual abuse, which does not involve violence or intimidation, after defence lawyers claimed the woman had consented. The prosecution said she had been too scared to move. Eventually, Spain’s supreme court overturned the verdict and ruled the men had committed rape, increasing their sentences from nine years to 15 years.
The new law says sexual consent must be clearly communicated and cannot be assumed when the victim stays silent. As a result, it eliminated the previous distinction between sexual abuse and the more serious crime of sexual assault, which involves violence.
This produced tougher sentences for many offences, but by recategorising crimes, it also opened the door for some courts to rule that certain existing sentences should be reduced. This has led to dozens of offenders being released from prison because they had already served the required time.
Irene Montero, Spain’s equality minister and a Podemos member who is the driving force behind the law, said the judges who made those decisions were part of a “rightwing offensive against one of the most important public policy advances in feminism of the last 20 years”.
Podemos officials said they would not accept any modifications that would take Spain back to the time when women had to prove they had resisted to be considered victims of sexual assault.
Pablo Echenique, Podemos’s parliamentary spokesman, said on Twitter that the justice ministry — headed by a Sánchez ally — and the opposition PP wanted to return “to the previous model that asked the victims: Did you close your legs tightly? How much had you been drinking? Did you risk your life by punching him?”
The conservative PP is seeking to keep attention focused on the release of sex offenders, with Borja Sémper, its campaign spokesperson, saying on Sunday that Sánchez “did not want to confront Podemos”.
The PP has offered to vote with the Socialists — and sideline Podemos — on legislation to fix the new law. But Rodríguez said it was “almost impossible to imagine” the PP agreeing to anything.
“We have waited for them on so many occasions throughout this legislature and have been met with a ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “What they are engaged in here is political opportunism.”
Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, a consulting company, said the furore was unlikely to shatter the coalition. “In general, Podemos opens up fronts that create problems and tensions for Sánchez,” he said. “So there’s lots of noise. But in the end, the coalition does not break up.”
The prime minister would prefer to focus on Spain’s economic performance, Barroso said, acknowledging that the country had low inflation compared with its EU peers and low unemployment by its own standards. “Spain is in a relatively good place economically. He would like to talk about that. Social issues are less good for him.”
Source: Financial Times