El Salvador lawyers fight to free raped teenager jailed for abortion

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 14 July 2017 16:19 GMT

An activist holds a sign reading "Legal Abortion" in a 'Day Without a Woman' march on International Women's Day in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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Women have been accused of inducing abortions when in fact they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or pregnancy complications

(Corrects typo in 'CDFA')

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lawyers in El Salvador representing a teenager who they say suffered a stillbirth but was wrongly imprisoned for murdering her child say they will appeal the decision this month in a case that puts the spotlight on the country's strict abortion ban.

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez, 19, was handed a 30-year prison sentence earlier this month for aggravated murder by a female judge who ruled the teenager had induced an abortion, which is a crime in the Central American nation.

Hernandez, a high school student from a poor rural community, said she was raped and did not realise she was pregnant until she went into labour in a bathroom last year.

Abortion in El Salvador has been a crime since 1997, even in cases of rape, incest, when the woman's life is in danger or the foetus is deformed.

Hernandez's lawyer, Dennis Munoz, said an appeal would be lodged by the end of July on grounds evidence was tampered with and that there was no proof that she tried to kill her baby.

"This is absolute cruelty. It's a terrible ruling," said Munoz, one of several lawyers working to free the teenager.

Hernandez is among dozens of women believed to have been wrongly jailed in El Salvador in the past two decades for defying a ban on abortion, according to local rights group, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion (CDFA).

Women have been accused of inducing abortions when in fact they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or pregnancy complications, the CDFA says.

During the trial, three doctors from El Salvador's Institute of Legal Medicine told the court that Hernandez's baby had died of 'natural causes' - evidence the judge ignored, Munoz said.

"It's a witch hunt against women, especially poor women," said Munoz, who has secured the early release of at least eight women charged or jailed for abortion crimes in the past decade.

If the judges deny the appeal, Munoz said lawyers would bring the case before El Salvador's Supreme Court.

If that fails, it could be taken before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the main rights body for the Americas, Munoz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I believe the conditions are there so that we can file a lawsuit at the international level before the commission," said Munoz, who works for the CDFA.

The U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, together with the CDFA, filed a case in 2015 before the commission on behalf of nine women who had pregnancy complications and who are in prison after being convicted of defying the abortion ban.

The commission has yet to rule on the case. But one of the women involved, Maria Teresa Rivera, was released from jail last year after a Salvadoran judge quashed her murder conviction, saying there was not evidence to prove the charges against her.

Along with Hernandez, there are at least another 20 women convicted of abortion crimes, currently serving prison sentences of up to 40 years, rights groups say.

"Evelyn's case is yet another example of how the hostility towards abortion in El Salvador leads to innocent women losing their freedom," said Catalina Martinez, Latin America director at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"How many more women have to go to jail before the government realizes abortion law reform is crucial? We'll keep fighting until all these women are set free."

In recent years, the United Nations has urged El Salvador to lift its abortion ban, along with six other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have absolute bans on abortion.

Last year, El Salvador's ruling leftist FMLN party introduced a bill to allow abortion in cases of rape or risky pregnancy, but no date has been set for a vote on the bill.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)