Although it has had a lower profile, the Environmental Prosecution office in Malaga has played a key role in the trial of the president of the false animal protection centre in Torremolinos, Carmen Marín, who was sentenced to nearly four years in jail for falsifying documents and ill-treating animals.
The Chief Environmental Prosecutor, Fernando Benítez, admits that this case particularly affected him, and he has nothing but praise for the “effective and intelligent” investigation which was carried out by the Guardia Civil's Nature Protection Unit, Seprona. He recalls the impact of discovering what had happened - hundreds of animals were destroyed, suffering an agonising and unjustified death so that Carmen Marín could make money - and he says harsher penalties are needed for cases of animal ill-treatment which are “exceptionally serious, such as this one”.
What was your first impression when you heard about the Parque Animal case?
I realised that an offence of fraud concerning the donations made by people who took animals to the shelter was absent from the investigation. They weren't large amounts of money. Most people donated 50 or 60 euros, but altogether they came to quite a sum and that could have been fraud. I would have liked to have followed that up, but I didn't have any more documentation or new evidence which would enable me to do that. That part of the case is now being handled by the court in Torremolinos.
Also, the falsifying of documents had been excluded from the summary procedure. I pressed for that to be included, because I thought it was very important, and that was the start of a fierce legal battle; between us, on one hand, because we wanted to overturn the provisional dismissal of the offence of falsifying documents, and the defence, which wanted it to be cancelled altogether.
What affected you most about what had happened?
Some cases have a particular impact and this is one of them, not only because of the awful images and the witness reports, but because it is hard to imagine that there are people who are dehumanised to such an extent. It's almost incredible that someone who sells themself publicly as a protector of animals has such contempt for animal suffering and kills hundreds of animals in an extremely cruel way for purely financial reasons. I was amazed that the situation had gone on for so long without anyone putting an end to it.
In your accusation, you said that the animals were writhing in pain for hours.
There were witnesses who said so during the trial. Nothing was the product of invention or imagination. Carmen Marín admitted that this happened simply to save money on the euthanasia products. She injected an amount which was not recommended, into parts of the body which were not suitable, and with no sedation. Instead of giving the injections intravenously, she did it anywhere in the body. That makes intramuscular absorption of the product much slower.
What do you think of Seprona's investigation?
I think it was exemplary; firstly because it brought an end to this terrible situation, and secondly because it meant the case could come to trial. They carried out an investigation on the ground which was efficient and intelligent, and they collected enough material for us to evaluate what had been happening there. There were plenty of pictures, documents and witnesses.
In the conclusions you said you would have liked to have been wrong.
The defence maintained that this was a set-up, out of revenge or ill will towards Carmen Marín. I would have liked them to have demonstrated that, because it would have been preferable if this had not happened, but there was irrefutable evidence. The witnesses, the documentation and the experts' reports coincided about what had happened. And unfortunately, it was dreadful.
What role did Torremolinos town hall play in this?
During the trial Seprona said that the town hall had not collaborated with the investigation, and had even helped Carmen Marín to falsify documents. That wasn't part of the proceedings, but the officers said town hall staff were expressly told not to talk to Seprona. They said Marín was given the files with the invoices for incinerating the animals so they could be altered and then given back. That was proven, as the sentence shows. It points out that she was given favourable treatment.
And is that legal?
I have never known a case like it. Normally people can get a copy, although it isn't easy, but this is the first time I have ever heard of a public administration giving somebody a file so it can be modified and then re-registered.
And why was she given that favourable treatment?
I've heard a number of rumours, but I haven't analysed them from the point of view of proven facts.
It seems strange that, despite the seriousness of what had happened, Carmen Marín was sent to prison for falsifying documents and not for ill-treating animals.
It's strange that falsifying documents can result in up to three years in prison, while cruelly sacrificing thousands of animals only results in a maximum of one year, which can be extended to 18 months. It seems disproportionate that this behaviour has a penalty of 18 months in the worst of cases, when people are given the same sentence for stealing a wallet with 400 euros inside. It shouldn't be like that. We are calling for a new sentence to be available for exceptionally serious cases like this one, which deserve a much harsher penalty, so people can be given more than two years in prison.
Have you officially proposed that?
As a prosecutor all I can do is call for it in court, recommend it in my report and include it in the minutes for the Malaga Prosecution Authority. I have been doing that for two years. The judge also referred to it in the sentence, and the College of Lawyers has taken the matter to parliament. I believe it is to be presented as a draft bill.
-It seems that social sensitivity has advanced more quickly than the law regarding ill-treatment of animals.
-This type of matter is usually way down the list. We are a relatively young democracy and we come from an agrarian society. It is only recently that society has started to think of animals as sentient beings and not as mere possessions belonging to their owners. The crime of ill-treatment of animals has been common in the UK and Germany for a great deal longer, and the penalties are higher. Our Penal Code excludes animals which live in the wild, while Germany, for example, protects all animals with a vertebral column and central nervous system because it knows that they are capable of experiencing suffering. In Spain, the crime was introduced in 2003 and there were two important reforms in 2010 and 2015. Each reform widened the sphere of application and the penalty. I believe we're making progress in that sense.
What about bullfighting? How does that fit into this context?
It's a delicate question. I can only give my opinion as a citizen. I don't like bullfighting; I would prefer it to be abolished. Some regions have done that, without much of a backlash, and some festivals have abandoned their cruelest elements. However, I must stress, that is just my personal opinion.