Outrage erupted in Argentina this week after a Chubut prosecutor investigating an alleged sexual assault amounting to gang rape likened the incident to youngsters "letting off steam," characterising the alleged gang rape as a release of their pent up sexual energy.
Fernando Rivarola’s description of the alleged crime – “accionar doloso de desahogo sexual,” invoking the idea of a need for sexual relief – came in for fierce criticism, with activists arguing it sought to minimise the incident, which involved the sons of influential families in the southern province.
Faced with criticism, the Attorney-General’s office issued a press communiqué about the furore. Rivarola’s unfortunate expression was used in the context of requesting an abbreviated trial for three of the indicted and the acquittal of another.
The crime was committed in 2012 but the investigation only began early last year. Five youths, all of them sons of wealthy local businessmen, stand accused of raping an underage girl in the midst of a private party in Playa Unión, close to the Chubut provincial capital of Rawson.
At the start of the case, Rivarola requested the indictment of the suspects while defining their crime of sexual abuse as serious rape charges. He later downgraded this to "simple sexual abuse aggravated by being committed by three people."
The victim’s version of events runs as follows, as quoted by local outlets: “We went to spend the first weekend of spring at Playa Unión, Rawson, as a group of seven friends, all girls. We were at a party in the house of Robertino and Francesco V. and I soon passed out. One of my friends found me in a bedroom being abused by a group of four males: Ezequiel Q., Leo DV., Luciano M. and Robertino V. Joaquín P. was witness and Tomás S. held the door preventing anybody from entering or me being able to leave.”
The victim continues: “I was in a state of shock and various persons were trying to calm me down. Since I was naked, they looked for my clothes which were scattered all over the dark room full of beds where the rape took place. At that point the owner of the house threw out everybody from the party, yelling: ‘Tell nothing.’
“Upon returning to Puerto Madryn I attempted suicide. My mum and dad found me and I told them what had happened. They took me to the doctor where the protocol for the integral attention of the victims of sexual violence was made out. Robertino V. got in touch with me, asking me not to denounce him because his parents were on the brink of separation. To clear his name, Joaquín P. spoke to his parents, lying about his participation and confessing that I had been drugged. Some days later one of my friends heard them talking, calming each other down because I had not pressed charges.”
‘Out of context’
Amid anger and a fierce reaction from activists, campaigners and politicians, the Attorney-General’s Office released a press communiqué on Tuesday affirming that the meaning of the terms attributed to Rivarola had been changed. "They were taken out of context,” the text said, “overexposing the victim and placing crucial aspects of the criminal trial at risk."
The communiqué further pointed out that the Office (MPF, in its Spanish acronym) has been "assisting the victim from the start of the investigation.”
“She is an underage girl with a right to intimacy, protection of her identity and being preserved from all judicial procedures. But in parallel, both she and her family are receiving detailed information of the trial, participating in its decisions, receiving protection and victimological assistance. All the prosecutor’s decisions have been reached in consensus with her."
As for the controversial phrase, the explanation runs: "In simple terms, sexual abuse is precisely a conduct seeking the sexual relief of its author, knowing that he is doing so without his victim’s consent, that he is going to commit a sexual assault and that it is a crime and, conscious of all that, he advances without consideration of the damage. That is intent. In the context of a presentation, using the phrase ... sums up what we write earlier in this paragraph, fundamentally if used in the context of hearings and reserved writs only acceded by law professionals who know the scope of the term ‘intent.’
“In oral and public hearings, prosecutors in particular and operators of the criminal system in general seek in their presentations and resolutions to explain legal terms for the comprehension of those who are not lawyers."
In this respect, general adviser Yael Bendel said that "using the phrase 'desahogo sexual' shows prosecutor Rivarola’s lack of gender perspective and regard for children.”
He said the “prosecutor should rectify himself immediately and it should be evaluated if he is suited to investigating such aberrant crimes as the sexual abuse of adolescent girls. This rape is a crime carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years under the Criminal Code which could be raised to a 20 years for the participation of two or more persons or other aggravating circumstances.
“It is cause for indignation that on the fifth anniversary of the first #NiUnaMenos march against femicide we should have to hear from those who should be imparting justice such retrograde phrases violating human rights."
The local branch of Amnesty International condemned Rivarola's description on Friday, posting on Twitter that "desahogo sexual is sexual abuse. It is rape, it is a crime.”
More than a hundred people marched through the southern city of Puerto Madryn on Friday, denouncing the prosecutor and demanding his resignation. Protesters also called for the alleged criminals to be jailed.
"They drugged her, raped her between five [of them] and one was guarding the door. Then she began to receive threats and had to leave the city," said Silvina Ibarra, a 37-year-old feminist activist and one of the march's organisers.
The protesters, wearing face masks to protect against Covid-19, marched through the centre of the city, marched from the local courts and then stopped outside commercial premises owned by the families of the accused.
"They are guys who belong to very powerful families, from Madryn's power elite. We all know each other here," added Ibarra.
National government officials also broke ground to comment on the developments.
"We no longer tolerate turning our backs on the victims," said Interior Minister 'Wado' de Pedro reacted, requesting that the prosecutor's actions be investigated.
Judge Marcelo Di Biase has yet to decide whether or not to accept the request for an abbreviated trial, according to judicial sources.