Spanish government backs tougher action against sex crimes in draft law

By Belén Carreño and Paola Luelmo

MADRID, March 3 (Reuters) - Spain's left-wing government approved a bill on Tuesday that would qualify all non-consensual sex as rape, acting on a pre-election promise to strengthen laws in defence of women's rights.

The draft law, which faces months of debate in parliament, seeks to establish specialized courts for dealing with sexual offences and round-the-clock recovery centres for victims. It would increase jail penalties for work-related sexual harassment to up to two years and make catcalling a criminal offence.

Combating gender violence has been high on Spain's political agenda since its women's rights movement was galvanised by the 2016 "Wolf Pack" trial, in which five men referring to themselves by that name were jailed for sexual abuse after gang-raping a young woman at the Pamplona bull-running festival.

Mass protests against that conviction, which attracted international attention in the wake of the global #MeToo movement highlighting abuse and mistreatment of women, led to an appeal in 2019 in which the Supreme Court ruled the men had committed rape.

"Spain will be a safer country for women with the approval of this law," Equality Minister Irene Montero told a news briefing. "Women's rights and sexual freedoms will never again be stranded down a blind alley."

The Socialist-led coalition government announced the bill's approval in the run-up to Sunday's International Women's Day, and rallies in Spain this weekend to mark it.

Maria Solanas, director at the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank, said the proposed legislation would make Spain the first country to implement in a single bill all the recommendations of the 2014 Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women.

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According to Amnesty International, only nine of 31 European countries have laws that define rape based on the absence of consent, instead defining it by other measures such as whether violence or the threat of violence was used - as is still the case in Spain.

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The bill proposes to merge the crimes of sexual abuse and sexual assault into the same type of crime qualified as rape.

Aggravating factors such as physical violence or the use of drugs or alcohol to incapacitate the victim would carry heavier sentences. Such cases would be heard by special judges in courts dedicated to sexual crimes, as is already done with crimes relating to gender violence.

The gender violence law was approved in 2004 by Spain's previous Socialist government, and the World Economic Forum ranks the country eighth globally in terms of gender parity. (Editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet)

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