On the morning of December 13, Teodora Vasquez entered a courtroom in El Salvador, where abortion is banned in all cases, hoping she’d be going home with her parents and son that evening for the first time in a decade. Vasquez had already served ten years of a 30-year prison sentence for aggravated homicide following a stillbirth.
During the new trial in the country’s Second Court of Appeal last week, two expert witnesses testified that no crime had been committed and that the death was from natural causes. Still, the three-judge panel—Judges Alejandro Guevara, José Luis Giammattei, and María del Pilar Abrego—reaffirmed their original decision. Vasquez was sent back to prison to serve out the remaining 20 years of her sentence.
Vasquez’s supporters in El Salvador and internationally see these events as a referendum on the ability of Salvadoran courts to serve the interests of justice, especially for women living in poverty.
In 2007, the 24-year-old Vasquez was working in the cafeteria of a school in San Salvador. Vasquez, who was the mother of a 3-year-old boy, was pregnant and awaiting the birth of her second child. According to repeated testimony she has given over the years, while at work she began to feel intense pains, and knew it was time to go to the hospital. She made several phone calls to the police, who frequently provide emergency transportation in El Salvador, but, she says, they never responded. During the long wait, she felt the need to use the bathroom. There, she says, she felt something fall from her body. She fainted, came to for a few moments, and fainted again.
Eventually, she emerged from the bathroom. When other workers saw the blood from her severe hemorrhaging, they called police. This time, the police arrived and arrested Vasquez, who had lost consciousness again. When she awoke, she says, police were questioning her about why she killed her baby. She was taken to the hospital, and then to prison. In 2008, she was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide.
While in prison, Vasquez became part of the group known as “Las 17,” women convicted of aggravated homicide after experiencing obstetric complications and precipitous births without medical attention. With support from the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) in El Salvador, the 17 women each requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government. All but two requests were denied, including Vasquez’s.
Morena Herrera, Agrupación president, said at a press conference the day after Vasquez’s hearing that the group knows of at least 28 women currently serving sentences similar to Vasquez’s. Two more, she said, are still awaiting trials.
In seeking to gain Vasquez’s freedom, the Agrupación and Vasquez’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata Tobar, requested a revision of the original conviction. The criminal law branch of the Salvadoran Supreme Court granted the request, but named the same three-judge panel that had convicted Vasquez ten years ago to hear the case. Mata Tobar appealed and asked to have those judges recused, but the higher court insisted the judges could be impartial.
Still, Omar Flores, an attorney with the Salvadoran legal foundation FESPAD, noted his concern at the press conference that, as far as he saw it, “The proceedings gave preference to the prosecutor’s case while ignoring the scientific evidence and studies that demonstrated Teodora’s innocence.”
That evidence included testimony from two witnesses—a Salvadoran OB-GYN and a Guatemalan forensic medical specialist and attorney—who explained that asphyxiation connected to childbirth is not caused by some type of mechanical strangulation carried out by a person, which is what the prosecution accused Vasquez of doing. Rather, this medical phenomenon can happen due to natural causes before, during, or after birth and involves no criminal activity.
After the judges ruled against Vasquez a second time, civil society organizations denounced the double standard under which the judicial system operates in El Salvador. They argued that accused aggressors are “treated with indulgence,” and often allowed to wait for trials out of prison, while women like Vasquez are treated as guilty from the beginning.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, qualified the decision not to release Vasquez as an outrageous step backward for justice.
Although Vasquez was convicted of aggravated homicide and not abortion, a chorus of national and international bodies argued that the country’s anti-abortion law helps create a social and legal climate that leads to the imprisonment of women who have pregnancies that end in the death of the fetus, even when there is no evidence of criminal activity. Many of these organizations renewed their calls for the Salvadoran government to take action to end the practice of prohibiting all abortions and of using the anti-abortion law as part of a mechanism to criminalize women living in poverty who have obstetric complications.
A December 15 press briefing from Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, noted that “El Salvador’s Penal Code disproportionately affects women living in poverty, such as Teodora. We have not seen women from wealthier backgrounds jailed under similar circumstances in El Salvador.”
It urged the Salvadoran government to “review all cases where women have been detained for abortion-related offenses. If it is found that these cases were not compliant with international standards, the women should be immediately released.” As the Agrupación announced, the European Parliament had issued a similar resolution on December 14 specifically noting Vasquez’s case, along with that of Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz.
Throssell concluded, “Basically they are being convicted for being women, for losing a child, and for being poor.”
According to Herrera, the Agrupación is already working with partners such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and Amnesty International to investigate other possible legal avenues to secure Vasquez’s release from prison, both through the Salvadoran courts and through the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The IAHRC has already admitted—meaning accepted and will have hearings for—other cases of Salvadoran women with similar convictions.
Vasquez stated before the hearing that she had confidence that the court would “rectify the error” because “I know I am not guilty.”
The Agrupación will also continue exploring legal options for the other women behind bars. As Herrera told Rewire, “The citizenry of this country—but above all those who live in situations of poverty—do not have their rights protected when facing the judicial system.”