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Teresa Is Free

The Center generated international pressure to release another member of El Salvador’s wrongly imprisoned “Las 17.”

Last week, 30-year-old Teresa held a photograph of her young son as she took the stand. She had been separated from him for three years after being wrongfully convicted of murder following a traumatic miscarriage.

In her first court appearance since her 2012 conviction, she begged repeatedly to be reunited with her boy. Although her face is that of a woman with extraordinary strength and resolve, she was unable to speak without sobbing. Many of her supporters sobbed along with her.

Just hours later, Teresa was able to embrace her son after the judge granted her immediate release—throwing out her previous conviction and her prison sentence. There were many more tears, but these were unquestionably tears of joy and relief.

El Salvador’s extreme law criminalizes abortion in all circumstances. Teresa had been charged with murder when family members brought her to the hospital after she went in to early labor in a public bathroom.  She had not even realized she was pregnant at the time, and had assumed that the regular bleeding she had been experiencing was her period.

Severe blood loss left her unconscious. When she awoke, she was handcuffed to her hospital bed—and then taken directly to a detention center where she awaited trial.

Her eight-month trial was unable to produce any evidence of wrongdoing or motive. Nevertheless, the judge gave her the maximum sentence for murder—40 years—a sentence usually reserved for hired assassins, serial killers, and government officials who commit grievous human rights crimes.

Teresa is one of Las 17, a group of Salvadoran women who have gained international attention after being charged with murder following obstetric emergencies and sentenced to more than 30 years each. Fourteen of the women remain imprisoned today.

Although the judge who originally sentenced Teresa flatly rejected all appeals for reconsideration, a new judge took over several months ago and agreed to hear Teresa’s case claiming serious “judicial error” in the trial that resulted in her conviction. Last Friday, he affirmed that claim.

“This is a momentous victory for Teresa, but also for the other Salvadoran women who have suffered prosecution and imprisonment as a result of the government’s draconian abortion laws,” says Charles Abbott, the Center’s legal adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We are dealing with serious human rights violations that have been widely acknowledged by the international and human rights communities. The Salvadoran legal system has taken an important step here by acknowledging the judicial error in Teresa’s case and tossing out her grossly unjust sentence.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights has been advocating relentlessly for the release of Las 17 for several years, both at the international and domestic level. Last December, the Center, together with our local partner La Agrupación por la despenalización del aborto, filed an international petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and in domestic courts we have filed a technical intervention regarding international law on Teresa’s behalf.

At last week’s hearing, the Center also presented the court with an online petition containing over 10,000 signatures demanding justice for Teresa—and the hundreds like her who have been wrongfully criminalized by their government.

This past year, following substantial international pressure generated by the Center and our partners, the Salvadoran government released one of Las 17, Guadalupe—a woman who, at age 18, was charged with murder after being raped and impregnated, and subsequently suffering a miscarriage.

Although at that time, El Salvador denied requests to pardon any other Las 17 women, Guadalupe’s release was the most significant government response on the issue to date. The Center will not stop fighting for Las 17 until the injustice and human rights violations behind each case have been exposed and remedied.

With her release, Teresa will now attempt to return to a normal life with her son. She will also seek medical treatment for a painful and potentially life-threatening kidney condition that has gone untreated due to her incarceration, despite her repeated requests for medical attention.

An earlier version of this article appeared before Teresa had been freed; the above is the updated version.

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