SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — A court ruling in favor of a judge accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl has provoked outrage in El Salvador, where some see it as a sign that the wheels of justice turn differently for the powerful.
The girl’s mother accused Eduardo Jaime Escalante Díaz, a judge on First Civil Chamber of the country’s Supreme Court, of touching the girl’s private parts early this year. Escalante was accused of sexual abuse, but a court held this month that there was no assault but rather an act “against good customs and public decorum.”
Recent weeks have seen protests demanding a reversal. Prosecutors have appealed, and lawmakers on Thursday approved changes to the penal code to define such contact as a crime. However that will not apply retroactively to the judge, who was suspended from his position but is not under arrest.
Here’s a look at the case which has shaken El Salvador, one of the most socially conservative countries in the Americas.
THE VICTIM’S ACCOUNT
The girl’s mother says that on Feb. 18, a stranger approached her daughter as she was playing with other children outside the home of some relatives. A woman cried out that a man had touched the girl. The mother asked her daughter, who replied that the man had touched her genital region. The mother pursued the man, who ducked into an alley where she was able to see his face.
Police later captured Escalante.
THE SUSPECT’S VERSION
Escalante has said the accusation is made up, a “trick,” but avoided further comment because of a legal prohibition on discussing the case.
THE LEGAL PROCESS
Because he enjoyed criminal immunity as a sitting judge, Escalante was not jailed. Lawmakers later voted to strip him of that privilege, opening him to prosecution.
The court found in early November that Escalante had not committed sexual assault but “impudent touching,” which is not considered a serious crime under the penal code. Punishment in such cases is typically a fine amounting to 10-30 days of minimum wage, or a maximum of about $300. Sexual assault, by contrast, carries eight to 12 years in prison.
Although the court ruled that the judge had indeed touched the girl, it noted that it was brief and over her clothing — “instantaneous touching that happened in public view” — meaning it lacked “the gravity and transcendence necessary to constitute” a serious crime.
San Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas called the ruling “a judicial aberration.”
President Nayib Bukele asked the court to move swiftly to protect children and asked international human rights organizations to intervene.
Hundreds of women protested Nov. 4 in the capital to reject the ruling, carrying signs with messages such as “Touching girls is a crime” and “Girls should not be touched, raped or killed.”
Unicef called on Salvadoran authorities to for measures protecting children from sexual violence and guaranteeing access to justice.
Prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision and order Escalante to face trial for sexual assault against a minor. There is no timeline for that.
And on Thursday lawmakers approved a bill making such contact a crime punishable by eight to 12 years. Bukele is expected to sign it.
“In recent history we have clear examples of that, if the person has a certain social level, the treatment received is different from that of citizens ‘without names and surnames,’” said Arnaul Baulenas, a human rights lawyer at the Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, who is not involved in the case.
“We still live in a profoundly macho society where certain conduct by men is accepted as valid,” Baulenas said, “or at least not reproachable for being customary.”