Court whittles domestic violence law in Costa Rica

October 17, 2008

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) late last week rescinded two articles of Costa Rica´s Law to Penalize Violence Against Women, ruling them unconstitutional, citing vagueness in the wording of both.

More than 100 men were released from prison late Thursday following the court´s decision.

The much-contested articles 22 and 25 address criminalization of “maltreatment” and “emotional violence.”

Article 22 punishes perpetrators of physical violence against a woman by anyone “with whom she maintains a marital relationship, whether a declared union or not,” a crime punishable by six to 24 months in prison.

Article 25 criminalizes “anyone who repeatedly, publicly or privately, insults, devalues, ridicules, shames or terrorizes a woman with whom she maintains a marital relationship, whether a declared union or not,” and is also punishable by six to 24 months.

The law has been criticized for punishing male abusers differently from female ones, and conversely for protecting female victims differently than male ones.

The case was filed by public defender Marco Feoli Villalobos.

Just over 70 percent of men imprisoned under the law since it was passed in May 2007 have been convicted for crimes specified in those two articles, according to the National Institute for Women ( INAMU).

After eight years in the legislative process, the law passed, with 45 of the assembly´s 46 members voting in favor. Several male lawmakers, however, stated after the vote that, despite perceived problems of unconstitutionality, they were afraid to vote against the bill for fear of being labeled machista, or male chauvinist.

INAMU called the court´s ruling a “serious step backward,” and its president, Jeanette Carrillo, called on various government agencies “to fulfill their promise to safeguard the physical integrity of women in situations where there is a threat of violence from their partners.”

Many lawmakers, including former Vice President Laura Chinchilla, who lobbied for the law while a legislator, were mum on the court´s ruling.

In 2004, a series of events highlighted the lack of adequate domestic violence prosecution laws, including one case in which a Costa Rican woman was granted asylum in the United States after demonstrating that she was unable to be sufficiently protected here against her partner, who allegedly violated a restraining order on him over a dozen times.

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