The streets of Spain were filled with protesters – mostly women of all ages – on Monday as they demanded the country’s laws be changed after five men were acquitted of raping an unconscious 14-year-old girl.
Outside the gates of the Ministry of Justice in Madrid, several hundred gathered holding banners reading, “I do believe you!” and “It’s not abuse, it’s rape.”
Monday's protests were held in more than 40 cities as the hashtag #EnoughPatriarchalJustice spread on social media.
The protests came after a Barcelona-based court acquitted the five men accused of gang-raping an intoxicated 14-year-old girl of sexual assault. Instead, they were convicted of the lesser crime of sexual abuse and sentenced to 10 to 12 years behind bars.
The court found that because the victim had drunk alcohol and smoked marijuana before the attack, she “could not accept or reject the sexual relations.” The men, it said, were, therefore, able to have sex with her without using violence or intimidation – an element required under Spanish law for a crime to be a sexual assault or rape.
The assault took place in 2016 in Manresa, a town in northeastern Spain, at an abandoned factory where a group of young people had been drinking and using drugs.
The victim said during the trial that she could not recall every detail as the five men took turns assaulting her but that she feared for her life because she believed they had a gun. The weapon turned out to be fake.
Marian Fernandez, a 31-year-old psychologist, said protesters were seeking not just new laws or a better interpretation of the current ones.
"It all comes down to respecting the concept of consent," she said. "It's about understanding that 'no' means no and that only 'yes' means yes."
In addition to being sent to prison, the men were fined a total of $13,300.
Spanish media said the victim plans to appeal the verdict.
This ruling reignited anger over how victims of sexual assault are treated in the Spanish legal system, echoing sentiments of another 2016 case in which an 18-year-old was alleged to have been raped by five men at the start of the Pamplona festival.
The initial verdict found the defendants guilty of sexual abuse because the judges saw no intimidation in the way the men cornered the victim in a lonely hallway.
But that was overruled earlier this year by Spain's Supreme court following a wave of street protests. The court extended the men's prison terms from nine years to 15 in a landmark ruling that said that the victim, outnumbered, had been subjected to "surrounding intimidation."
A conservative government, then a Socialist one, promised to modify the criminal code to eliminate the distinction between "abuse" and "assault."
But progress has been slow amid a political stalemate that is unlikely to be immediately resolved on Sunday when Spaniards head to the polls for the fourth time in four years.
The center-left administration of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to make explicit consent mandatory in all sexual relations and to launch a program to improve gender awareness among members of the judiciary.
But his minority government collapsed without enough parliamentary support at the beginning of this year, and the political deadlock wasn't resolved with an April election.
A far-right party that has criticized feminism could become an important force in the parliament, according to polls ahead of this weekend's election.
Some activists and experts said that even without legal changes, the outcome in the Manresa trial could have been different if the judges had drawn lessons from the Pamplona case.
"It's not enough with better laws; we also need judges who are well trained on gender issues," said Vivian Waisman, president of Women's Link Worldwide, a Madrid-based nonprofit organization that promotes women's rights.
The new ruling, she added, "is a reminder that the judicial system is repeatedly failing to protect female victims of sex assaults."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.