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Spanish justice system admits it is failing victims of gender violence

Recent spate of murders shines spotlight on the courts’ failure to protect at-risk women

An officer inspects the home where the body of Manuela C. S. was found.
An officer inspects the home where the body of Manuela C. S. was found. EFE

The failure of the Spanish justice system to protect women at risk of gender violence has come under review after several women were murdered this week despite having sought protection from the state.

In Bilbao, Maguette Mbeugou, 25, had her throat slit after she was denied a restraining order against her husband on the grounds that she already had plans to move to a different location with her young daughters.

A photo of Maguette Mbeugou, who died after being stabbed in the neck. JA
A photo of Maguette Mbeugou, who died after being stabbed in the neck. JA EFE

“This is a failure of justice in capital letters. Mbeugou had asked for protection from the courts and did not receive it,” said Juan Luis Ibarra, the chief justice at the Basque Country’s regional High Court, who apologized to the woman’s family for the tragic oversight.

Mbeugou was not the only victim of domestic violence this week. In just 48 hours, three women and two children have been murdered in Spain, bringing this year’s tally to 38, and to 962 since records began.

Legal experts agree that the system is not working, but there are multiple reasons that extend from the technical to the social: a lack of human and material resources, excessive workloads at the courts, a lack of gender perspective, and poor coordination among the agents working in various fields.

The Female Judge Association of Spain (AMJE) on Thursday asked authorities to adopt 16 measures to fight sexist violence, and to provide the necessary funds for them. The priorities include prevention and awareness campaigns focusing on children and youth, but also on the teaching community.

“The justice system is failing, but we keep expecting the problem of sexist violence to be resolved by the justice system, when this problem goes beyond the judges, prosecutors and lawyers,” warned Lucía Avilés, a member of AMJE. “This is a social problem, and society needs to accept that. The justice system is only a part of that, and a part that steps in when the problem has already manifested itself.”

The AMJE also wants the children of victims to be recognized as victims themselves, to increase the number of specialized courts, and to introduce mandatory training for judges, prosecutors, lawyers and medical experts.

Death foretold?

In Castellón, a man killed his two- and six-year-old daughters in the middle of the night on Tuesday, then jumped out the window to his death. The mother had requested protection from the courts after her ex-husband reportedly told her in February: “You can say goodbye to the girls, I’m going to destroy what you love the most and you’re going to be left all alone. I’ll end up in jail, and everyone will be dead,” he said, according to the police complaint filed by the woman. Despite this, her request was denied.

This is a social problem, and society needs to accept that

Lucía Avilés, Female Judge Association of Spain

Four hours later, a woman named Nuria Alonso was stabbed to death by her ex-partner in Maracena, Granada. She had filed complaints against him twice, once for gender violence, but he had been acquitted. The victim was not placed under any kind of program for at-risk women.

That same day, in Bilbao, Maguette Mbeugou’s husband slit her throat, nine months after she had reported him to the police. The judge who saw the complaint refused to issue a restraining order, and the prosecution did not request protection measures. At a later trial, the husband was acquitted of threat charges.

In the early hours of Thursday, the police found Manuela C. S. lying in a pool of blood inside a home in Torrox, Málaga. She had been stabbed to death by her partner, whom she had reported months earlier for making threats. A court had issued a restraining order, but the couple had moved in together again.

All three dead women, as well as the mother of the two dead children, had filed complaints against the alleged killers.

Risk detection

Octavio Salazar, a legal expert specializing in gender issues, says that the tools are there to prevent such cases, but they are not being used. Like Ibarra, he feels that the first “technical” mistake lies in the risk-detection systems. “The criteria still used by the judiciary to assess whether a murder will occur do not work, they’ve been evidencing signs of failure for years, but nobody has gotten around to changing them.”

“The risk factors are not being properly assessed,” agrees Pilar Llop, the government’s delegate for gender-violence issues. “Our current police and forensic-based tools are either non-existent or insufficient or deficient.”

A first assessment is conducted by the police through a 50-question form that victims have to fill out. The results are fed into a computer system that assigns a risk level, from low to extreme. The result is conveyed to judicial authorities in a report, and judges may request additional information from expert units attached to the court, if these exist.

These expert units, which include physicians, psychologists and social workers, were created in 2004, yet they have not been introduced in all of Spain’s regions. Even where they exist, they do not follow common criteria or enjoy the same kind of resources.

The criteria still used by the judiciary to assess whether a murder will occur do not work

Legal expert Octavio Salazar

“These units need to be activted, but with training in gender issues,” says Inmaculada Montalbán, a former president of the Observatory against Gender Violence, which is attached to the General Council of the Judiciary, the judiciary watchdog of Spain. “This is what helps us understand certain situations that seem difficult to comprehend, such as a woman’s decision to move in with her attacker again.”

Octavio Salazar underscores another problem, which is “the lack of credibility granted to women, which is part of a sexist legal culture that is still very much present among judges.” And he is talking about both male and female judges.

Flor de Torres, the deputy prosecutor for violence against women in Andalusia, adds that another difficult issue is getting offenders to change their ways. “They don’t take in what they’ve done, and that is the basis for change,” she says. This lack of social integration leads to high recidivism rates. This expert said that, according to her own experience, between 50% and 60% of protection and restraining orders are broken.

Another problem is that many allegedly battered women refuse to testify against their abusers in court, making it difficult to secure a conviction. “We cannot put all the moral weight on the victims […]. They are not strong in this process, they are not empowered, they are scared,” says De Torres. This leads to what she calls “macrovictims,” women who suffer abuse again, either from the same partner or from other recidivist abusers.

Isabel Valdés, Pilar Álvarez, Pedro Gorospe, Esperanza Codina, Javier Arroyo and Reyes Rincón contributed reporting to this story.

English version by Susana Urra.

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