MADRID – Four people accused of hanging an effigy of Real Madrid player Vinícius Júnior off a highway bridge were released from custody Thursday while still under investigation for perpetrating a hate crime.
A Spanish judge in Madrid prohibited the four people from attempting to communicate with Vinícius. They also have a temporary restraining order banning them from a 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) area around Madrid’s stadium and training facilities and from coming within the same distance of any soccer stadium between four hours before and four hours after a Spanish league game.
The court statement said the four people are also being investigated for trying to damage the moral integrity of Vinícius. It added that the four opted not to answer the judge’s questions in their first court appearance, in line with their constitutional rights.
Also Thursday, Spanish league president Javier Tebas said the league could end racism in six months if given more sanctioning powers, and Valencia player Mouctar Diakhaby refused to pose with the anti-racism banner along with the other players ahead of a Spanish league game. Diakhaby, who is Black, accused an opponent of racism in 2021 but nothing was done because officials said at the time there was not enough evidence showing he was abused.
The incident of the effigy occurred on Jan. 26 in the buildup to a derby match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. But it wasn’t until Tuesday when police made the arrests amid a public uproar that has engulfed Spain following the latest episode of racial abuse being targeted at Vinícius.
Police on Tuesday also detained three people accused of verbally abusing Vinícius with racist slurs during a match on Saturday in Valencia at Mestalla Stadium, which will have parts of stands closed for the next five games. Those three were also released from custody.
The 22-year-old Vinícius, who is Black, has been subjected to repeated racist taunts since he arrived in Spain five years ago from his native Brazil.
In Spain, hate crimes are typically punished with one-to-four years of prison time, while crimes against a person’s moral integrity are punished with six-to-24 months behind bars.
Tebas reiterated the need for the league to gain more sanctioning powers to fight racism. He said the league has asked for an urgent change in the laws so it can act more proactively.
“I'm convinced that if we are given authority, in six months we can end (racism),” he said in a news conference.
Currently, the league can only denounce cases but not punish anyone. Tebas acknowledged it might have been a mistake not to make the request for more sanctioning powers earlier.
Tebas said Vinícius was being targeted because he is a great player and compared the racial abuse against him to the insults sustained by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi when they played in the Spanish league, the first with homophobic slurs and the Argentina star with insults about disabilities.
Tebas also said he would encourage Vinícius and Madrid to leave the field in the future if another case of racism happens.
He claimed that the league had been acting alone in the fight against racism until now, being the only soccer institution taking part in the legal proceedings in cases involving Vinícius.
He noted that only lawyers from the league were present on Wednesday in the proceedings involving the four men arrested for hanging the effigy of Vinícius. No one representing Real Madrid or any other institution was there, he said.
Tebas listed a series of cases in which the league denounced racism to authorities even before Sunday’s incident in Valencia, with many of them being shelved by prosecutors. He said the league changed strategies and started going directly to the courts to try to get more cases admitted.
Tebas reiterated his apology after criticizing Vinícius for the player's attack on the league following the latest case of abuse against him on Sunday.
“I didn’t mean to criticize Vinícius," he said. “I understand that Vinícius is frustrated. But I was frustrated, too. I was trying to explain that we have been doing a lot to fight racism."
Tebas said he went through some of his “worst days” after being accused of being racist because of his comments toward Vinícius.
“We all love Vinícius,” he said. “I hope that he remains in Spanish soccer. We will show that this organization fights against racism.”
The president said he was “obviously concerned” with the image of the league and hoped that it would not affect the nation's bid with Portugal and Morocco to host the 2030 World Cup. He said the league proactively contacted sponsors after Sunday's incident with Vinícius.
“Spain is not racist and Spanish soccer is not racist," Tebas said. "We have to keep working hard to keep racist acts away from our stadiums.”
He said the introduction of loss of points for clubs in cases of racism could help combat the problem.
Also Thursday, Spain’s Ombudsman Office asked the country's Higher Sports Council, the government’s authority for sports, for more information about the racist abuse targeted at Vinícius during the game in Valencia. The office said it had received complaints from “two Brazilian civil society organizations” regarding the abuse and that it was in contact with its counterpart in the South American country.
In a statement, the Ombudsman Office stated that Spanish law prohibits any acts of racism, xenophobia or intolerance during sports events.
Wilson reported from Barcelona.
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