U.S. Warns of Sexual Assault Risk in Spain

MADRID — The United States Embassy in Madrid has warned Americans visiting Spain to take extra precautions because of “a steady increase in the number of sexual assaults” over the last five years in the country.

Embassy officials said they were unaware of any similar alerts for a European nation.

The security alert, issued on Monday, came as the Spanish authorities are investigating a rape accusation filed by three American sisters against three Afghan men over events on New Year’s Eve in southeastern Spain. It also warned of the challenges that those who experience sexual assault face when seeking justice in the Spanish legal system.

The embassy said it was responding to an increase in sex attacks “against young U.S. citizen visitors and students throughout Spain.” It cited data from Spain’s interior ministry but provided no details.

In response to the alert, a spokesman for the Spanish interior ministry acknowledged on Wednesday that Spain had seen an increase in the number of reports of sexual assault, but said that still Spain had one of the lowest sex crime rates in Europe. He also suggested that the rise in reported crimes in part reflected a greater readiness by victims to come forward and was in line with the trend in other Western countries.

The United States has issued travel warnings for Spain and other European countries over the risk of terrorism, notably after a van attack on Barcelona’s most famous promenade killed 16 people in 2017. That warning was updated last October after a secessionist conflict in the Catalonia region spiraled into several nights of violence in Barcelona and other northeastern cities.

The embassy also issued a specific warning in September against a Seville-based tour operator who was accused of assaulting American students.

Spain is a highly popular destination for tourists around the globe, with a record 83.7 million visitors last year, according to data released on Monday by its national statistics office. That included over three million Americans, a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

Yet Spain has faced stinging criticism over its handling of several high-profile sexual assault cases in recent years, with women’s rights activists charging that the country’s judiciary is dominated by men who judge cases based on faulty ideas about issues like what constitutes consent. Several verdicts have prompted street protests, including some of the world’s largest marches on International Women’s Day.

One of the most contentious cases came to the spotlight in 2018, when a court sentenced five men to prison for the “continuous sexual abuse” of an 18-year-old woman during the Pamplona bull-running festival, but cleared them of the more serious charge of rape, which under Spanish law must involve violence or intimidation.

That verdict against the five men — who had filmed the assault using a cellphone and who dubbed themselves the “wolf pack” — was overruled in June by Spain’s Supreme Court, which found them guilty of rape and increased their prison sentences on the main charge to 15 years, from nine.

Yet in October, a case involving the sexual assault of an unconscious 14-year-old girl also resulted in the conviction of five men on a charge of sexual abuse rather than rape, when that Spanish court ruled that they had not used violence.

That type of distinction is part of what led the American Embassy to issue its caution this week, warning that “U.S. citizen victims of sexual assault in Spain can find it very difficult to navigate the local criminal justice system, which differs significantly from the U.S. system.”

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