Salvadoran Court Upholds Freedom of Woman Wrongfully Imprisoned After Miscarriage

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(PRESS RELEASE) A Salvadoran woman wrongfully imprisoned after a miscarriage who was absolved and released will remain free, according to the San Salvador Third Criminal Chamber (Cámara Tercera de lo Penal de San Salvador).

After the release of Maria Teresa on May 20, prosecuting attorneys filed an appeal to the Third Chamber, claiming that the judge who freed her made a serious error in logic (sana crítica) when reviewing her case. This latest court decision rejects the prosecution’s appeal and upholds her release.

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 Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center:

“Finally after almost seven years of fighting, Maria Teresa has the freedom and peace of mind that she deserves.

“No woman should ever be thrown behind bars after suffering from pregnancy complications and this Salvadoran Court decision ensures facts and medical evidence prevail over discriminatory stereotypes about women and pregnancy.

“El Salvador must right the wrongs for the remaining women who are wrongfully imprisoned because of its devastating abortion law.”

Maria Teresa’s conviction was overturned on May 20, 2016 and she was released the same day, based on new facts that came to light as a result of scientific analysis performed on the initial evidence used to convict her. On June 20, prosecuting attorneys filed an appeal claiming that scientific advances do not constitute new facts and that the judge made an error in Maria Teresa’s release.

The Center for Reproductive Rights submitted two amicus briefs during the appeals process, one arguing for Maria Teresa’s freedom and the other proving that scientific advances are accepted as new facts in most jurisdictions. The San Salvador Third Criminal Chamber’s decision should finally end Maria Teresa’s legal limbo and gives her the chance to seek civil damages for her wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

In November 2011, without ever realizing she was pregnant, Maria Teresa went into early labor, experiencing heavy bleeding and ultimately miscarrying 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. Had her conviction not been overturned, Maria Teresa would have remained in prison until 2052, while her elderly grandmother takes care of her child. Her prosecution was widely condemned, including by the Ombudsman of Human Rights (Procurador para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos) of El Salvador, as a result of fundamental human rights violations during her trial.

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.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years to expose the consequences that El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban has on the lives of women. The Center together with the Agrupación Ciudadana filed a case in December 2015 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights– a principal human rights body for the Americas—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 an alarming pattern of due process violations in these women’s cases, including the police failing to read them their rights when initially being questioned and the denial of the right to appeal their cases against their wrongful detainment. The case also argues that the women’s rights to personal integrity, health, private and family life, freedom from gender violence, equality before the law and non-discrimination were violated.

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