Women shout outside the Justice Ministry in Madrid, Nov. 4, 2019. People are demonstrating to demand changes in criminal laws and the country's judiciary after a new ruling on a sex assault case revived the debate over the fair treatment of victims.
FILE- Women shout outside the Justice Ministry in Madrid, Nov. 4, 2019. People are demonstrating to demand changes in criminal laws and the country's judiciary after a new ruling on a sex assault case revived the debate over the fair treatment of victims.

MADRID, SPAIN - The alleged rape of three American women by Afghan migrants is prompting a public examination of Spain's legal system, with media commentators and politicians debating the veracity of the charges and the competency of Spanish authorities to handle the case appropriately.

The Spanish press has delved into intimate details of the case, including speculation that the women – three sisters from the Midwestern state of Ohio aged 18, 20 and 23 -- contrived the sexual assault to claim on their travel insurance. Reports have even cited disclosures by hospital examiners that the youngest of the three sisters was a virgin before her encounter with the alleged rapist.

The United States, meanwhile, is advising other Americans to take precautions against sexual assault and warning about the legal handling of sexual assault cases in Spain. “

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,” said an advisory issued by the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. It specifically warned American female students to “take precautions against sexual assault during their stay in Spain.”

FILE - Activists protest in Barcelona, Spain, June 21, 2018. A Spanish court triggered a new wave of outrage Oct. 31, 2019, by acquitting five men of gang rape and instead finding them guilty of a lesser charge of sexual abuse.

Spain’s interior ministry says that while the number of rape cases has risen from fewer than 1,000 in 2016 to some 1,400 in 2019, the total remains well below that in most other European countries. Reported sexual assaults in France, by contrast, rose from 16,000 to 52,000 over the same period, according to the French government.

A U.S. Embassy official told VOA that most rape cases in Spain go unreported because of the inadequate treatment that victims receive from police, health authorities and the legal system.

While 34 sexual assaults against American women were reported during 2019, the official said many more cases go unreported, adding that a major American university with one of the largest exchange programs in Spain received complaints of sexual violence on an average of once per week.

The three sisters, all college students, have accused Afghan refugees of violently forcing them into sexual intercourse on New Year’s Eve in the city of Murcia.

The accused men, who have been released since their arrest days after the incident, claim the sex acts were consensual. Their lawyer has filed charges of “false accusation” against the women claiming inconsistencies in their police testimonies.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Adam Lenert said the way in which rape victims are questioned in Spain is outdated and tends to put the burden of doubt on the victim. The first questions police asked the three women concerned what clothes they wore and whether they had consumed alcohol or drugs before they met their alleged rapists at a bar. They were also asked about travel insurance, which is mandatory for U.S. students in most exchange programs.

Those practices persist despite a growing feminist movement, led in some instances by top officials of the ruling Socialist government, which has greatly raised consciousness about sexual violence. “

Spain has become highly sensitized on matters concerning rape and sexual harassment,” said news anchor Antonio Jimenez, who led a round-table discussion about the U.S. travel advisory on his nightly talk show on one of Spain’s main television channels.

At least two recent gang rape cases triggered mass protests by women’s groups, which have argued for stiffer jail terms for the perpetrators, who have become known as “wolf packs.”

Right-wing groups have further politicized the issue, with some conservative leaders blaming the problem on the rising tide of immigrants from Muslim countries. Speaking before the congress two weeks ago, VOX party leader Santiago Abascal criticized the leniency extended to the Afghan rape suspects as an example of how immigrants receive special consideration.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right party VOX, waves to supporters during a rally in protest against the new coalition government led by Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, at Cibeles Square in Madrid, Spain, Jan. 12, 2020.

There is concern that as the case of the three Ohio sisters gets entangled in Spain’s politics and complex legal system, it may become increasingly difficult to get a clear verdict or trial.

Defense lawyer Melecio Castaño, said on television that evidence suggests the women and their alleged attackers had a “cordial farewell” on the morning after their encounter and that cell phone records indicate that one of the women subsequently called one of the men.

Sources close to the women’s legal counsel say that text messages sent to one of the alleged attackers were placed at the request of police in an effort to locate him.

Under Spanish law it’s necessary for the victims to appear before the court in order to “ratify” their charges. The Americans have left Spain and might be hesitant to return due to the way in which they have been treated, U.S. Embassy officials say.