Protests in Spain after 5 imprisoned on lesser charge in Pamplona 'gang rape'

Protests erupted across Spain Thursday after a court in the northern city of Pamplona sentenced five men to nine years each in prison for the lesser crime of sexual abuse in what activists saw as a gang rape during the 2016 running of the bulls festival in Pamplona.

"It's not abuse, it's rape!" shouted protesters in live television broadcasts from the gates of the Navarra provincial court when the ruling was announced.

Police stopped the crowd from advancing toward the entrance to the court, with some angry demonstrators shoving officers.

Thousands of protesters gathered hours later in central Pamplona and most of Spain's major cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Bilbao, Valencia and Zaragoza. Demonstrators shouted slogans like "No is no, the rest is rape!" while some waved homemade signs saying "Enough of a patriarchal justice system" or wore red gloves as a symbol of protest.

"I am asking myself what is happening with the justice system in Spain and in the world,"29-year-old student Nuria Beltran said in Madrid. "For a long time now the status of women has been denigrated by all governments. It is mind-blowing what is happening here, this is clear example that the masculine laws rule."

The five members of "La Manada" — or "The Pack," after the nickname the group gave themselves — were found guilty of sexual abuse, which doesn't involve violence or intimidation under Spain's criminal code. The prosecution had argued that violence was used and the 18-year-old victim didn't consent to intercourse.

People lift up their arms as the shout slogans during a protest outside the Justice Ministry in Madrid, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Women's rights groups protested Thursday after a court in northern Spain sentenced five men to nine years each in prison for the lesser crime of sexual abuse in what activists saw as a gang rape during the 2016 running of the bulls festival in Pamplona. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Thousands of protesters rallied outside the Justice Ministry in Madrid.  (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The court on Thursday chose the lesser sexual abuse charge in contrast to the more severe charge prosecutors sought along harsher sentences of more than 22 years in prison each. But the court agreed there was no consent because the defendants were in a position of "superiority that curtailed the victim's freedom."

One of the three judges in the panel voted in favor of acquitting the defendants, the court said.

Both the prosecution and the defense announced later they would appeal the decision.

The five men, all Spanish citizens between 27 and 30, were friends who traveled to Pamplona to party during the San Fermin festival in July 2016.

According to testimony at the trial, the men offered to accompany the victim to her car but instead hauled her into a building where they filmed their assault with their smartphones. They then took her mobile phone and left.

The men argued that the young woman had consented to intercourse. To support the claim, their lawyers produced detectives' reports on the victim's behavior after the incident, causing outrage among women's rights groups who said the victim was being judged for her behavior rather than the attackers. The defense then withdrew the report.

In addition to the prison time, the court ruled they should jointly compensate the victim with 50,000 euros ($61,000) and refrain from contacting her for 15 years.

The five have been in pre-trial custody since they were arrested after the incident.

The president of Spain's Feminist Party, Lidia Falcon, told La Sexta television that the ruling means rape in Spain is "practically free" of punishment.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the government "had to respect" the controversial ruling, while adding that authorities must respond to the public uproar.

"I think we have to analyze what we as public authorities must do so that incidents like this don't happen again in our country," she said.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala said that the laws in question date from 1995 should be reviewed to see if "it is convenient to push for their revision."