Hopes raised for Salvadoran women behind bars for abortion crimes

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 8 March 2019 18:02 GMT

Activists take part in a demonstration during a nationwide feminist strike on International Women's Day in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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Another 18 women remain in jail, convicted of inducing abortions, who say they were wrongfully jailed for murder, when instead they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The early release of three Salvadoran women serving decades-long prison sentences under the country's total abortion ban raises hope nearly 20 other women jailed on similar convictions will walk free, reproductive rights activists said on Friday.

El Salvador's Supreme Court on Thursday commuted the 30-year prison sentences of three women convicted on aggravated murder charges for allegedly having abortions, which is a crime under any circumstance in the Central American nation.

The top court ruled that the sentences "were disproportionate and immoral", and that the social and economic status of the women should have been taken into account.

The three women, from poor backgrounds, had spent about 10 years each behind bars. All the women, and their lawyers, claimed they were wrongfully imprisoned after suffering a miscarriage or obstetric emergencies.

"This is the first time three women have been released at the same time. They are all very happy but also worried about the future. They have to rebuild their lives and relationships with their children who they had to leave behind," said Morena Herrera, head of local rights group, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion (CDFA).

"There's recognition from the court that the convictions didn't take into account their poverty and vulnerability. It's a ruling that gives us hope and a sign that other women could be granted their freedom," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Another 18 women remain in jail, convicted of inducing abortions, who say they were wrongfully jailed for murder, when instead they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications, Herrera said.

Some of the women are serving prison sentences of up to 35 years and became pregnant as a result of rape, she said.

"We will keep insisting and fighting for the release of the other women," said Herrera, adding the CDFA had helped to secure the early release of 30 other imprisoned women since 2009.

El Salvador is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have total bans on abortion.

But El Salvador stands out for its high number of convictions against women for abortion crimes, said Catalina Martinez, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"The court's ruling sets an important precedent for the other women in jail," Martinez said.

"Freedom for these women who have been sentenced to prison for felonies they did not commit is just one of the steps that El Salvador has to take to guarantee women's rights."

Campaigners for women's rights also vowed to continue to campaign to overturn El Salvador's total ban on abortion, in place since 1997, even when the life of the mother is at risk.

"El Salvador continues to ignore its international responsibilities, which call for all countries .. to recognize that forcing women to continue a pregnancy that puts her life or health at risk is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment," Martinez said.

Since 2016, attempts to get a bill passed that would ease El Salvador's abortion ban have so far failed.

There are two bills before congress aimed at allowing abortion under limited circumstances, including in cases of rape or a risky pregnancy. But no date has yet been set for lawmakers to debate the bills.

"It's a conservative congress and country, but it's not impossible," Herrera said. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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