Dominican lawmakers seek to ease sex abuse penalty

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Lawmakers in the Dominican Republic are considering a proposal to reduce prison time for some domestic violence and sexual abuse crimes, sparking outrage from human rights and women's groups in the Caribbean country.

Dozens of people gathered outside the Congress on Thursday to protest the proposed overhaul of the criminal code. Demonstrators carried cardboard coffins they said were intended to represent the victims of violence in a country that has long struggled with violent crime.

The new criminal code would raise the overall maximum sentence for serious offenses from 30 to 40 years and codifies the crime of kidnapping among its many changes.

But the version already approved by a legislative committee, which has been under consideration for 12 years, would reduce the sentence for sexual abuse of a minor from 5 years to 3 years in most cases. It would also reduce the penalty for some forms of domestic violence, treating it as a serious offense only when there is death or major injury. The new code would also provide for jail terms in cases of defamation.

Advocates for women's rights have also complained that abortion would still be a criminal offense in all cases, even when the mother's life is in danger. Lorena Espinoza, who attended the rally as a member of the Women's Health Collective, said the new proposal would also eliminate a maximum penalty in cases of incest.

"These sentences and omissions amount to a step backward for women and are unacceptable," Espinoza said.

Demostenes Martinez, chairman of the Justice Committee in the lower house of Congress, has said that the changes are the result of 12 years of debate with input from various sectors of Dominican society.

Both houses of Congress must still vote on the new criminal code and it must be signed by President Danilo Medina before it takes effect.

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