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WORLD | 13-02-2023 11:49

Spain races to fix sex consent law that backfired

Spain is backtracking on a sexual consent law just months after it was introduced because it has had the unintended effect of reducing prison sentences for hundreds of convicted sex offenders and has created further disagreements within the coalition government.

Spain is backtracking on a sexual consent law just months after it was introduced because it has had the unintended effect of reducing prison sentences for hundreds of convicted sex offenders and has created further disagreements within the coalition government. 

The legislation, informally known as the “only yes means yes” law, approved in August that sexual consent be conveyed through actions that “clearly express the will of the person.”

But lawyers have taken advantage of an overlooked loophole that widened the definition of sexual assault and reduced the minimum length of prison sentences. At least 380 convicted offenders have seen their sentenced reduced — and 29 have been released — since the law was ratified, according to the El País newspaper, piling pressure on the government to resolve the issue.

“What is clear is that there are problems with the law,” Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told lawmakers in his party this week. “We will do what is right. Defend the great advances of this law and correct the problem so that no sentence is cut in the future.”

The ruling party plans to introduce a clause next week to raise the minimum jailtime for sexual aggression to six years if the crime involved violence or intimidation in an attempt to close the loophole.

The controversy risks turning a groundbreaking equality initiative into a major political headache for Sánchez ahead of a general election expected by the end of the year. 

Sánchez failed to win a majority of votes at the last election but squeaked back into office for a second government after persuading 13 deputies to abstain in a confidence vote in parliament in January 2020.

Unidas Podemos, the junior coalition partner in charge of the Equality Ministry, warned that these changes could remove consent from the legislation by bringing back the burden of proof to victims. It also blamed conservative judges for misinterpreting the legislation and lowering sentences.

"This cannot be settled with a return to the old penal code,” Equality Minister Irene Montero, who led the drafting of the consent law, told state-run television TVE on Wednesday.  

Montero has also pushed through other socially progressive legislation – including a transgender rights bill and a 16-week paternity leave – despite strong opposition from conservatives who called the measures unnecessary.

The Socialist wing of the government attempted but ultimately failed to reach an agreement with the equality minister on how best to alter the legislation. The far-left party accused the Socialists of returning to the old model that forced survivors to prove they were coerced into sex.

“This law has partly kept a ceiling on support for the Socialists when Sánchez was hoping to climb in polls,” said Joan Navarro, deputy head of public affairs at the Madrid-based consultancy LLYC and a former Socialist party official. “This is tremendously sensitive for the government. Nobody wants to be blamed for letting rapists go free.”

The clash between the coalition partners is the latest in a long list of disagreements ranging from legislation to bolster transgender rights to increasing defence spending and the future of a former colony in North Africa. Still, both sides have vowed not to break the coalition ahead of the elections. 

Relegated to run ministries with little clout, Unidas Podemos has turned into a standard-bearer for socially progressive causes, pushing the Socialists out of their comfort zone and becoming the target of the conservative opposition.

by Alonso Soto, Bloomberg

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