(PRESS RELEASE) Countless Salvadoran women with pregnancy complications continue to be arrested on suspicion of an abortion and later imprisoned for decades on charges of homicide according to a new case filed today before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – a principal human rights body for the Americas.
The Center for Reproductive Rights together with the Agrupación Ciudadana filed the case on behalf of nine women who had serious pregnancy complications and are now in prison due to the severe enforcement of El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban. The petition shows that the women suffered multiple due process violations in their cases, including the police failing to read them their rights when initially being questioned and being denied the right to appeal their cases against their wrongful detainment. The case also argues that women’s rights to personal integrity, health, private and family life, freedom from gender violence, equality before the law and non-discrimination were violated.
For more than 16 years, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances—even when necessary to save a woman’s life—imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. The ban has resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of countless women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages, who are then charged for having an abortion and wrongfully convicted of homicide.
Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:
“El Salvador can no longer ignore the families torn apart and countless women’s lives ruined by its cruel and unjust abortion ban.
“Women who suffer pregnancy complications should never face criminal prosecution when they need quality medical care, and the nine women we represent should never have been treated as criminals and denied their freedom, dignity, and fundamental human rights.
“The Inter-American Commission must accept this case and hold El Salvador accountable for the gross human rights violations endured by every Salvadoran woman who has been wrongfully imprisoned under this needlessly devastating law.”
The stories of the nine women (brief synopsis below release) all detail how the criminal and judicial system violated their human rights. In almost all the cases, the women were reported to the police for having emergency pregnancy complications. The majority of the women were detained and interrogated while still in a hospital bed, without being read their rights, without an attorney present, often while recuperating from anesthesia and still in shock from what occurred to them.
In December 2014, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights, launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of “Guadalupe” and 16 other Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were charged for having an abortion and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17” was released in December after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. In February, Guadalupe was successfully released and pardoned, after serving seven years in prison. The remaining 15 women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences.
“We will continue fighting for the justice and liberty of all Salvadoran women wrongfully imprisoned because they had pregnancy complications,” said Morena Herrera, Executive Director of Agrupación Ciudadana. “These women deserve justice and if we can’t find it here in El Salvador, we will find it at the international level and are confident that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will help us put an end to this country’s criminalization of pregnant women.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years to expose the consequences that the blanket abortion ban in El Salvador has on the lives of women. Recently, the Center and the Agrupación Ciudadana co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban, and includes the personal stories of five women who were unfairly prosecuted for illegal abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies without receiving medical attention. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial and prison systems fail to guarantee women’s human rights.
Johana Iris Rosa Gutierrez
Johana slipped and fell to the floor one morning causing excruciating stomach pain and profuse bleeding. Soon after entering the latrine, Johanna delivered the baby, went into shock and lost consciousness.
Her mother found her in bed still in shock and called 911 so the police could rescue the baby from the latrine and help Johanna. Instead, the police immediately assumed that Johanna had tried to end her pregnancy. She and her baby were separated, and the police brought Johana to a local public hospital and later arrested her.
During her hearing, the prosecutors claimed that Johana intended to let her baby die in the latrine, ignoring the testimony of her mother who confirmed that she was in a state of shock and from Johana who believed her baby was dead when it fell in the latrine.
Johana was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “attempted aggravated homicide” on April 2, 2008, leaving behind two children in the care of her mother. She will be in prison until 2023.
Ena Vinda Munguia
Ena had an out-of-hospital birth in September 2009. She passed out and awoke in the hospital where staff didn’t allowed her to see her baby and police interrogated her.
Even though her baby survived and there was no proof she attempted an abortion, Ena was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “attempted aggravated murder” on April 15, 2010.
Ena’s child is about to start pre-school and only sees her during prison visits. She will be in prison until 2025.
Maria Marina Perez
On April 3, 2001, at about 18 weeks of pregnancy, Marina had an obstetric emergency and miscarried. She buried the fetus afterwards and was overwhelmed with grief.
Police received a tip about a dead baby and two days later with the help of dogs uncovered the body. Officers went door to door in search of answers and arrested Maria Marina after unsubstantiated claims from a child living in the neighborhood.
Although no evidence could prove whether the fetus had been born alive or dead, Marina spent months in pretrial detention without an attorney, and was eventually sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide by a 3-judge panel on June 8, 2002, even though one of the judges dissented because of evidentiary issues. Marina will be in prison until 2032.
Alba Lorena Rodriguez
Alba went into early labor at home and fainted while giving birth in December 2009. When she came to, she sought help from a neighbor, who said that the baby had stopped breathing after a half hour, and that the neighbors held a vigil and prayed in a nearby house. The following morning, before burying the baby, the neighbor called the authorities to report the death.
Since she did not seek immediate medical attention, Alba was still bleeding profusely when police arrived to detain her the following morning, sending her to the hospital where she remained unconscious for three days. In and out of consciousness during her hospital stay, she was interrogated by police officers. Although the police report said she read and understood her rights, Alba is illiterate and she did not have access to an attorney during the interrogation.
While no proof exists that she did anything to cause the death of the baby, Alba was sentenced to 30 years in prison on July 15, 2010 for aggravated homicide. She will be in prison until 2040.
Teodora del Carmen Vasquez
Teodora was pregnant when assaulted on a bus in July 2007, and the attacker having fell onto of her stomach. Days after the attack, she started having back pains and noticed she had no contractions. She knew something was wrong and told her boss she needed to go to the hospital, and he called the police for help.
Waiting for the police to arrive, she sat on a step in the courtyard and suddenly felt an urge to use the bathroom. Upon entering the bathroom, she delivered the baby and passed out from blood loss. The police immediately suspected she tried to end the pregnancy, claiming that she purposefully caused the baby to die because the baby’s father abandoned her–despite no evidence of the accusation during her trial and an autopsy of the baby showing “no signs of external trauma.”
There were multiple due process violations in Teodora’s case, and adding insult to injury a private attorney hired by her family tried to extort more money from them and when they refused the lawyer did not show up for Teodora’s trial date. Instead a public defender was assigned at the last minute. Teodora was sentenced to 30 years in prison on January 25, 2008 for aggravated homicide and will be in prison until 2038.
Maria Teresa Rivera
In November 2011, without ever realizing she was pregnant, Maria Teresa went into early labor, experiencing heavy bleeding and giving birth in a public restroom. Her family called emergency services and at the hospital the police were called on the suspicion that she induced an abortion.
Despite inconsistencies and lack of proof that Maria Teresa attempted to end the pregnancy, she was convicted of aggravated homicide and condemned to 40 years in prison on June 5, 2012.
Although the Ombudsman of Human Rights (Procurador de Derechos Humanos) of El Salvador recently said that Maria Teresa’s rights were violated during her trial, she will remain in prison until 2052 while her elderly grandmother takes care of her child.
Maritza de Jesus Gonzalez
In October 2008, Martiza had an obstetric emergency and gave birth to a baby with severe fetal impairments at her home in the presence of her mother-in-law and sister. The baby died 20 minutes after being born and they buried him in the backyard.
After calling for medical assistance, Maritza was instead taken into police custody. No one read Maritza her rights or made clear what was happening when she was detained. The police concluded that the baby’s impairments were due to contusions and arrested Maritza. She suffered more abuse behind bars, and has been denied medicine for her high blood pressure which led to health problems.
Maritza was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide on June 10, 2009—even after an expert witness testified in her case stating that the baby had severe fetal impairments, not contusions. She will be in prison until 2039.
Maria del Carmen Garcia
Maria was a live-in maid for a prominent family. On October 30, 2009, early in the morning, Maria had an obstetric emergency in the kitchen of her employers, who found her passed out on the floor in a pool of blood. Her employers claimed Maria tried to end the pregnancy and called the police to report her.
Maria was taken to the hospital where she was interrogated by police in the maternity ward while still recuperating. She was arrested the same day, still in her hospital bed, on suspicion of aggravated homicide. She remained in custody for months during her criminal investigation. The court did not ask for her medical records nor obtain the results from the forensic psychologist, and they did not accept testimony in Maria’s defense—all violations of due process in her case.
Maria was sentenced to 25 years in prison for aggravation homicide on June 15, 2000 and will be in prison until 2025.
Mayra Veronica Figueroa
Mayra Veronica, a domestic worker, became pregnant in 2003. Shortly before reaching full term, she experienced an obstetric emergency that resulted in a miscarriage.
Her employers took her to the Chalchuapa Hospital, where she was then reported to the police. Veronica was not assigned a defense lawyer until the day of her first hearing. She never saw or heard the forensic testimony or medical examiner’s testimony.
Without witnesses or any direct proof, Mayra Veronica was convicted of aggravated homicide on September 25, 2003. She will be in prison until 2033.