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SPAIN: Fight Against Domestic Violence only Strong on Paper

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, May 16 2008 (IPS) - While domestic violence in Spain is becoming more and more visible, the country’s laws and justice system are proving weak instruments to fight the phenomenon, according to experts from different fields who are demanding further legal reforms to address the issue.

The government of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who took office in 2004, passed a Law on Gender Equality, appointed women to key positions in the administration, created special courts and issued drastic instructions to crack down on domestic violence.

But the violence continues: between 2001 and 2007, 425 women were killed in domestic violence cases in Spain, with 71 of the murders occurring in 2007 alone.

And this year, 32 women were murdered by May 12. Feb. 27 was a particularly black day, with four women killed.

Between the creation of the special courts for violence against women in 2005 and the end of last year, 69,400 men were prosecuted and 48,971 convicted. In 2007 alone, 126,293 complaints were filed.

But the courts are snowed under with cases and are short-staffed, so prosecutions drag on for years.

Progress in fighting domestic violence is also undermined by delays by judges and police in enforcing court sentences or orders, and the lenient treatment received by perpetrators in some cases, activists complain.

On Monday, a court cut the prison sentence handed down to Colombian national Andrés Julián L. H., from 25 to 17 years, after he confessed to the crime with which he was charged: the rape of a 10-year-old girl, who became pregnant and had a baby as a result.

The girl’s mother, Laura Montenegro, told the press that “for the sake of justice, he should have got life in prison.”

Two days earlier, the former partner of 67-year-old María Juana cut her throat because she had filed a complaint against him for threatening her. The court had issued a restraining order against him, but he violated it, as do many who are subjected to similar restrictions in Spain, because of little or no police surveillance.

Spain’s criminal code also permits abusive parents to regain custody of their children. The press recently reported the case of police officer José María Cenamora, convicted of raping his daughter and stepdaughter, who committed suicide at the age of 17 after telling her mother and other relatives about the abuse she had suffered for years.

The judge in charge of the case sentenced Cenamora to four and a half years in prison – three years for the abuse of his stepdaughter and 18 months for that of his daughter, who is now 10. But she only cancelled his legal rights as a father for the 18 months he will serve for molesting his daughter, instead of the six years provided by law.

Reporter Mónica Belaza, who specialises in such issues, wrote in the Madrid newspaper El País that according to this criterion, “it can be concluded that criminal law takes the view that in some cases rape, aggression or sexual abuse of a child by his or her father or mother may be compatible with the child’s care and protection.”

Another controversial case was that of Argentine national Sylvina Bassani, who was killed by her ex-husband on Apr. 10, in spite of having reported several violations of the restraining order against him.

The court in charge of the case had requested assistance from the Consejo General del Poder Judicial, the governing body of the Spanish judicial system, because it was unable to deal with the number of cases assigned to it. After Bassani’s murder, the court secretary wrote that “the delay in processing gender violence cases is truly disturbing,” and pointed out that 41 other courts are also in a state of collapse for similar reasons.

The degree to which courts are overwhelmed depends on the city or province where complaints are dealt with. “Victims seeking justice receive a very different quality of response, depending on the location,” said Montserrat Comas, the head of the Observatory Against Domestic and Gender Violence, sponsored by the Consejo General del Poder Judicial.

After receiving some 200 demands for the same penalties to be applied to men and women convicted of violent attacks, based on the argument that different treatment is unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday in favour of retaining the difference, by seven votes to five.

The rector of the Sociedad de Estudios Internacionales (SEI), legal expert Fernando de Salas López, told IPS that the same penalty should apply to the same crime, whether it is committed by men or women.

Not only must gender violence be effectively combated, but also domestic violence against elderly people, who are “weaker and more sensitive,” he added.

That view was echoed by lawyer and former judge Javier Gómez de Liaño, in an article published Tuesday in the Madrid newspaper El Mundo.

“All attempts to compensate for historical injustice, based on differences of sex, religion, birth, physical appearance, race or any other distinguishing feature, deserve to be struck down as running counter to the constitution and, therefore, inadmissible,” he wrote.

Article 14 of the constitution states that Spanish citizens are equal before the law, and that there cannot prevail any discrimination on the grounds of birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other social or personal condition or circumstance.

But the Constitutional Court has upheld differential penalties for men and women, and it has the final word.

Now it is a matter of enforcing the law, and Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega made reference to that at the Third Spain-Africa International Meeting “Women for a Better World”, which was held in the West African nation of Niger from Monday to Wednesday. “If we don’t want laws to become dead letter, we have to make them a reality, and that is possible in the case of gender violence,” she said.

“In many countries, women have won recognition of the political and social rights that belong to us. Over the length and breadth of the planet, we have achieved legal recognition of the right to equality, and gender policies have become part of the international agenda,” the deputy prime minister said.

“We have made progress, but we must continue to advance,” she added.

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