MADRID — In a case that was seen as a bellwether for women’s rights in Spain, a court on Thursday sentenced five men for sexually abusing a woman during the bull-running festival of Pamplona, but cleared them of raping her, to the dismay of women’s associations.
Shortly after the verdict, various women’s groups announced that they would lead protests on Thursday evening across Spain to condemn the ruling. The five men were sentenced to nine years in prison for “continuous sexual abuse,” rather than the almost 23 years in prison that the prosecution had sought for rape and other charges.
The woman’s lawyer said she would appeal the ruling. The government of Navarre, the region of Pamplona where the case was heard, said it would back the appeal. The case could go as far as the Spanish Supreme Court.
The attack took place in July 2016, during the festivities in Pamplona that have turned into one of Spain’s main tourism attractions, when visitors flock to the city to watch people try to dodge bulls hurtling down narrow streets on their way to the ring.
An 18-year-old woman, whose identity has been protected by the authorities, was attacked in the early hours of the morning by five men, who filmed the assault using a cellphone. The incident set off mass street protests and a national outcry at the time.
The court on Thursday found the five young men, who are from Seville, guilty of “sexual abuse” of the woman, but cleared them of the more serious charge of rape, which must involve violence or intimidation under Spanish law.
On top of their prison sentence, the men were ordered to pay a combined 50,000 euros ($60,600) in compensation to the woman. One of the defendants, who was a military police officer at the time, was also fined €900 for stealing her cellphone.
The five men used to refer to their own gang as the “manada,” a term commonly used to refer to a pack of wolves, a description that in itself became a symbol for feminist associations of the aggressive machismo that women suffer in Spain.
Following their detention, the men’s lawyers argued that the woman was not gang raped but had consented to unprotected sex. Part of their claim was based on the phone video footage, which showed her to have been still, with her eyes shut during the assault.
The lawyers also argued that, after meeting the men, the woman had agreed to be escorted by them to her car and had allowed one of the men to kiss her. The prosecution, however, argued that any initial friendliness turned to terror once she was taken instead by the men into an out-of-sight alcove and attacked there, leaving her too frightened to fight back or even move while being raped.
The attack was one of several assaults reported during the bull-running festival in 2016, even though the city had organized a special information campaign to help prevent sex crimes. The police presence had also been stepped up and high-definition surveillance cameras deployed across the city.
Thursday’s verdict followed a long trial that had already set off significant controversy after lawyers for the five men started to portray the victim as a consenting sexual partner who suffered no lasting damage.
The defendants’ lawyers also used a private detective to follow the woman and gather evidence that she returned to a normal life after the assault, but part of that evidence was eventually withdrawn by the judges. Instead, the woman said that she was undergoing long-term therapy to help her overcome the trauma of the sexual assault.
Following Thursday’s ruling, Soledad Murillo, a former state secretary for gender equality, called for an overhaul of Spain’s criminal code. The ruling, she said, left the impression that “these guys went a bit too far but didn’t want to hurt.”
Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the main Socialist opposition party, wrote on Twitter: “If what the wolf pack did as a group wasn’t violence against a defenseless woman, what do we then understand to be rape?”
The official spokesman of the Basque regional government, Josu Erkoreka, warned that the ruling would give legitimacy to machismo violence and would not be understood “by the society of the 21st century.”
Different police associations also condemned the ruling, posting “No is No” messages on social media — one of the slogans that was already widely used in the protests held in 2016 after the attack in Pamplona.
Public interest in the outcome of the Pamplona trial also rose following the launch of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns to fight sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond.
Last month, about 120 demonstrations took place across Spain to celebrate International Women’s Day, which was also turned into a day of strikes by labor unions that backed the women’s movement.