Debate rages over sentences for pyromaniacs

Is the punishment for starting devastating forest fires tough enough? (photo: Dave Hogg)

As firefighters manage to totally extinguish the flames of a forest fire in the National Park of Fragas del Eume in Galicia, fresh questions are being asked about whether the punishment for arson and pyromania in Spain is sufficiently strong.

Residents and firemen in the area battled for several days to control the flames which threatened to destroy large swathes of the most important ecological area on the Atlantic Coast. The Xunta – Galicia’s regional parliament – revealed today that 750 hectares were destroyed by the flames, a total of 3% of the National Park’s areas of special ecological importance.

The Partido Popular’s president of the Xunta, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has demanded a revision of the penal code with regard to arsonists, which he fears is currently too lenient and not enough of a deterrent.

Newspaper ABC reveals today that only 17 people are behind bars for similar attacks in the whole of Spain, with the norm being a caution or fine rather than incarceration. Although the penal code allows for one to five years incarceration for starting forest fires (and between ten to twenty if lives are considered to be at risk) statistics show that the number of perpetrators actually sent to prison is low. In 2009, for example, out of over 2000 forest fires only 85 custodial sentences were handed out.

Although, according to the newspaper, the real problem is the process by which such cases are tried. Currently, the majority of criminal cases such as these are done by trial by jury, and by the nature of the crime there is often not much more than circumstantial evidence to convict an offender. Juries are on the whole less likely to condemn a defendant based on such evidence, and so rather than increasing the maximum penalty, some are arguing instead for trials to take place before magistrates of judges.

With most of Europe in severe drought after two winters of low rainfall, all the Autonomous Communities of Spain will be bracing themselves for a summer of similar events. With every intentional fire that flares up, so too will the debate over sentencing for arsonists.

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