El Salvador lawyer pledges to fight for woman jailed for abortion crime

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 December 2017 19:13 GMT

Teodora del Carmen Vasquez arrives at a court of justice for a sentence review hearing in San Salvador, El Salvador, December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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"The decision is a product of our culture"

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Dec 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lawyer in El Salvador, representing a woman whose 30-year prison sentence under the country's strict abortion law was upheld by judges, said he will fight to get the conviction quashed in a case that has sparked widespread outrage.

Teodora Vasquez was jailed for 30 years in 2008 for aggravated murder after being convicted of intentionally inducing an abortion, which is a crime under any circumstances in the Central American nation.

With Vasquez in handcuffs, judges upheld the conviction on Wednesday in a packed courtroom in the capital, San Salvador.

Vasquez, 37, and her lawyer, Victor Hugo Mata, said she suffered a stillbirth. She has spent 10 years in prison.

U.N. appalled at 30-year sentence for woman under El Salvador abortion law

"We were surprised about the decision," Mata told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have proved there was no criminal intent here."

El Salvador is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where abortion is totally banned, even in cases of rape, incest, when the woman's life is in danger or the foetus is deformed.

It stands out for its strict enforcement of the law, with the region's highest number of prosecutions of women accused of carrying out an abortion, according to local rights group, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion (CDFA).

The case has revived debate about El Salvador's total ban on abortion and calls for women jailed for the crime to be freed.

Vazquez is among 27 women who are behind bars for abortion-related crimes who actually suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications, CFDA said.

Mata said the decision cannot be appealed. Instead a cassation will be lodged to consider if the law had been applied correctly rather than re-examine the evidence.

"It's the last recourse there is," said Mata.

"There's not a lot of hope," he said, adding it could take up to two years for the case to come before the courts again.

Nancy Northup, head of the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is supporting Vasquez's case, said the decision "is another slap in the face for Teodora, who never committed any crime".

The United Nations called on El Salvador last month to issue a moratorium on applying its abortion law and urged authorities to review all cases where women have been imprisoned for abortion-related crimes.

El Salvador is punishing Vazquez "for being a woman", Amnesty International said.

"Authorities in El Salvador must urgently take a hard look at their outrageous anti-abortion law and take immediate steps to repeal it," the rights group's Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said in a statement.

Lawmakers introduced a bill last year to ease the country's blanket prohibition and allow abortion under certain circumstances. No date has yet been set for the bill's debate.

El Salvador's influential Catholic Church and evangelical groups believe abortion is a sin. They say that life begins at conception and that laws must protect the rights of an unborn child at all costs.

"The decision is a product of our culture. It's a very conservative country. The Catholics and evangelicals are against women's rights ... a woman has no value in society," Mata said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro. 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)

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