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Pamplona bull festival faces battle with feminists and animal rights groups

Revellers pack the main square during the launch of the 'Chupinazo' rocket, to celebrate the official opening of the 2018 San Fermin fiestas with daily bull runs, bullfights, music and dancing in Pamplona, Spain, Friday July 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

By Aritz Parra, Associated Press

The topics of sexual abuse and animal cruelty are dominating this year's San Fermin festival in Pamplona, which kicks off for nine days of round-the-clock alcohol-soaked partying, traditional celebrations and dangerous bull runs.

It is not a full-blown identity crisis yet but the festival in northern Spain, popularised by American novelist Ernest Hemingway and seen by critics as a macho proving ground with a violent streak, is slowly adapting to the social awareness brought by a new generation.

Sexual assaults reported during the festival went from two in 2008 - the year a local woman was murdered after she refused to have sex with her killer - to 20 in 2016, when five men cornered an 18-year-old, filmed themselves sexually attacking her and left after stealing her phone.

The figures, from a study by the Public University of Navarra, rose to 22 last year amid growing public outrage.

"I don't want my city to be known as a place for rampant sexual abuse or the torture of animals," said Jana Uriz, 32, a local animal rights activist among those demanding a "sexual abuse-free" festival.

Authorities have been able to identify suspects in nearly 95% of the cases in Pamplona, where the 2016 "Wolfpack case" - named after the WhatsApp group the perpetrators used to share their abuse videos - marked a tipping point that galvanised Spain's own #MeToo movement.

Outrage fuelled protests in the streets after a provincial court cleared the five men of rape charges and sentenced them to nine years behind bars on a lesser charge of sexual abuse.

The government launched a revision of the punishments for sexual crimes, but when the men were released on bail last month pending a decision on their appeal, angry crowds again hit the streets.

Authorities in Pamplona responded by improving their handling of victims, stepping up police surveillance and training and launching 24-hour hotlines and a new mobile app that allows the instant reporting of abuse, including victims' real-time locations.

But for some activists, the measures are not enough.

Naia Mira, 22, was among hundreds of women, most in their twenties, marching in Pamplona on Wednesday night, holding banners denouncing what they call a patriarchy that permeates all levels of life in Spain.

"Fear needs to change sides," said Ms Mira, adding that distrust in the judicial system is pushing some feminists to press for more self-defence.

The city's left-wing mayor, Joseba Asiron, said that "Pamplona is leading the push against sexual aggression", as officials reassure visitors that the festival is safe for both women and men to enjoy.

But Mr Asiron, a 56-year-old historian whose term ends next spring, has also raised eyebrows ahead of this year's festival by questioning the future of bullfights, a tradition at the core of the festival.

"I don't envision a San Fermin festival without the bull runs, but I do see them happening one day without the corridas (bullfights)," he said.

Those remarks prompted angry bull breeders to answer that, without the bull fights, Mr Asiron could forget about the bull runs.

The Toro de Lidia foundation, which groups bull-related businesses and aficionados, claimed the industry injects 74 million euros (£65 million) into the city's coffers each year.

Six bulls complete the 930-yard (850-metre) course to Pamplona's bullring, where they are usually killed in televised bullfights during eight consecutive afternoons.

Owners of private balconies overlooking the action charge spectators 140 euros (£123) per person to view the bulls and the runners charging down the town's ancient streets.

"Once you open that door, there is no way back to save the running of the bulls without having them sacrificed in the bullring," said Juan Cuesta, a 55-year-old Pamplona resident who looked on Thursday as more than 100 animal rights activists protested against the festival.

"I respect their opinion, but this is a wider debate that doesn't need to come from politicians, but rather from society," Mr Cuesta added.

"Right now, I don't see the majority of people in Pamplona ready to give up on the DNA of San Fermin."

The annual animal rights protest on the eve of the festival used to go largely snubbed in Pamplona, but activists said more locals, especially younger people, have joined their campaigns in recent years as partial bans on bullfighting spread over dozens of Spanish towns.

Since the Spanish constitution protects corridas as part of the nation's cultural heritage, new regulations usually aim at turning them into blood-free shows, banning any torment to the bull.

They also forbid the consumption of alcohol and access for minors, while imposing anti-doping checks for animals and matadors.

"The idea is to make the corridas as boring as possible, by making them increasingly unappealing for bullfight promoters, so one day they can just fade away," said Teodora Zgimblea, an activist with the Britain-based Peta animal rights group.

With the debate still in its infancy, it is unclear whether the festival could survive without its most famous symbol.

But San Fermin has in the past survived calls for boycotts.

Animal rights groups themselves do not even dare suggest boycotting Pamplona because, according to Uriz, "we need to gain support step by step".

The festival is also taking a strong position against sexual abuse.

When national feminist groups urged participants in Pamplona's Friday opening party to wear black in protest, local women's rights activists rebuked them, saying they had fought off sexual aggression for decades and would decide such matters on their own.

"Tomorrow, I will put on my white clothes and my red scarf around the neck," Uriz said.

"We have to go out and protest to change attitudes, but that doesn't mean that I want to end my city's festival altogether."

Pic by AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

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