They Almost Killed Me

A Salvadoran woman testifies about the abuse she suffered in jail after being imprisoned for having a miscarriage. And the Center fights back.


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When Cristina Quintanilla spoke into the microphone at last month’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing in Washington, D.C., her voice was strong and straightforward—but underneath you could hear an undeniable uneasiness.

“At 18, I suffered a miscarriage,” the 29-year-old Salvadoran began, her story buzzing through the translation headsets worn by many of the rapt attendees. “I was bleeding, I was in the bathroom, I was unconscious. My mother took me to the hospital so that they’d give me medical attention. I spent three days in the hospital. From there, I went to jail.”

Two thousand miles from her home country, Cristina testified before the main human rights body for the Americas about how she was unjustly sentenced to 30 years in prison following the loss of the pregnancy due to El Salvador’s extreme ban on abortion.

As she told her story, the reason for Cristina’s uneasiness became abundantly clear. She was speaking to a commission of human rights experts, but she was also speaking in front of representatives from the very country that had deemed her a criminal.

While she was being treated for the miscarriage, hospital workers reported Cristina to the authorities on suspicion of abortion. She was arrested and detained as she awoke from her emergency procedure, before she fully knew where she was or had begun to process the trauma of her experience. She was then swiftly convicted of homicide under El Salvador’s draconian policy that criminalizes abortion in all circumstances, and she was sent to prison—despite a complete lack of evidence.

Her appointed attorney barely knew her name.

As Cristina spoke at the IACHR hearing, she was flanked by Center for Reproductive Rights attorneys, President and CEO Nancy Northup, and Chief Program Officer Karen Hanrahan. Both Northup and Hanrahan testified at the hearing about the human rights violations perpetrated against Cristina as well as more than a dozen other women who remain imprisoned under El Salvador’s ban.

“Simply put, El Salvador’s health, judicial, and prison systems are failing to guarantee women’s human rights. Instead, they place all women under a cloud of suspicion,” said Hanrahan during her testimony. “In this society, any woman could be thrown into jail for having a problem with her pregnancy or for seeking health care during her pregnancy if she didn’t have the resources to seek adequate legal representation or special care.”

The imprisoned women—known as Las 17—all suffered pregnancy-related complications and were given 30-40 year sentences after being convicted of homicide. Many are held at the same overcrowded prison where Cristina spent four years before being released on a due process violation. Another women, Manuela, died in 2010 during her imprisonment from the cancer that likely caused the loss of her pregnancy.

The Center is seeking justice for Manuela’s family in a case currently before the IACHR and has been working to expose the brutal consequences of the ban for over 12 years.

This week we filed a new case with the IACHR on behalf of nine of Las 17 who are still in prison. The petition details multiple human rights and due process violations.

“Pursuing these charges at the IACHR is the only legal option these women have to be granted their freedom, to return to their families, and to rebuild their lives,” says Charles Abbott, Legal Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center, who has been working on the case. “Our hope is that a win will create a precedent in El Salvador—and in the region—to prevent more tragedies like this from happening. Until this inhumane law is changed, we will continue to bring cases like this in pursuit of justice.”

In her testimony at the October hearing, Cristina spoke not only about her wrongful conviction, but also about the horrific treatment she faced while in prison.

“When I arrived, because of everything the media had said—a woman condemned for 30 years for the murder of her child—they almost killed me inside the jail,” she said. “They thought that I had done it, and they were talking like that among the guards.”

While in prison, she suffered grave physical and verbal abuse, as well as cruel “cavity searches” that amounted to sexual assault.

“I would like you to know what the reality is in El Salvador. Why are women exposed to this?” she said to the IACHR committee, “I went through a very ugly ordeal in jail. I know that many more women are suffering this same situation.”

Following the hearing, Cristina accompanied a delegation from the Center that met with State Department representatives to discuss the situation in El Salvador. Cristina delivered a box of the petitions signed by nearly 40,000 supporters asking Secretary of State John Kerry to call on El Salvador to release Las 17 and ease the ban.

In the aftermath of her testimony, Cristina remains both hopeful and realistic about the effect of the hearing and broader efforts to encourage change in El Salvador.

“I think it was necessary that someone who has lived a similar experience of the other women still in prison share her story. It is important that people hear it from me and not from a lawyer or someone that is handing the case,” she reflects. ‘The state acts like it is ignorant of what it is happening. Sometimes I can’t hope for anything to change in my country, but I would hope that the people here would take interest, would write letters to put on a little pressure.”

There are substantial reasons to maintain such hope.  In December, the Center and our Salvadoran partner Agrupación Ciudadana spearheaded an online justice campaign that generated significant international attention and outrage and resulted in the government’s pardon and release of Guadalupe, one of Las 17, who had served seven years of her 30-year sentence.

Cristina is bolstered by this significant progress, and she hopes that it can be a source of encouragement for the 15 women who remain imprisoned:

“Sometimes words are not a consolation to someone in prison. But I want to say have patience—the processes aren’t fast. These women need to know that there are people fighting so they can be free. Don’t lose hope. Don’t think you are alone. Behind them there are thousands of people that remember them, that are concerned about them, people that don’t even know them but care about them.”

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