Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín, who was convicted of aggravated homicide after a miscarriage in 2003, was freed from prison in El Salvador on Tuesday after her 30-year sentence was commuted to 15 years. Figueroa is one of the “Las 17,” a group of Salvadoran women imprisoned following obstetric emergencies with sentences of up to 40 years.
“I’m so happy to be free and with my family. We need to keep fighting so all the other women can be freed, too,” Figueroa told Rewire.News on Wednesday.
The conviction itself still stands. The 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of Justice in El Salvador took into account the extreme poverty in which she lived and the fact that she was pre-literate when the events occurred in 2003.
Figueroa’s story is similar to many other women still behind bars in the country. At the age of 19, Figueroa experienced a miscarriage in the home where she was employed as a domestic worker. She hemorrhaged heavily, and her employer took her to a public hospital. There, she was accused of having provoked an abortion—illegal in all cases in El Salvador—but because the pregnancy had advanced beyond 20 weeks, the charges were amended to aggravated homicide. She was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
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The local activist organization Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) became involved in her case in 2013. She was one of the women for whom the Agrupación requested pardons in 2014; only two were granted. Figueroa’s was not among them.
In January 2017, the Agrupación presented the petition for commutation of sentence to the Minister of Justice, arguing that in her original trial, “her version of the events was never heard and her right to a presumption of innocence was not respected due to patriarchal prejudices and [prejudices based on] the current legislation that criminalizes all forms of abortion, including therapeutic and ethical.”
The petition described how “Maira did not have an adequate defense since in the initial hearing the assigned lawyer abandoned the courtroom, and Maira had to testify without his presence.” A new defense lawyer was named the same day, the petition noted, further violating her right to an adequate defense.
As with many other women, the Agrupación alleged, “the prosecutor did not comply with the principle of impartiality established under Salvadoran law, which requires that in criminal cases the prosecutor must investigate not only the facts and circumstances that prove the responsibility of the accused, but also those that exempt, extinguish or attenuate the accused.”
According to the Agrupación, Figueroa “was convicted without direct proof, only by speculation, as affirmed by the statement of the trial court, which said that although there was no direct proof, ‘there exist demonstrated facts that if taken together can lead to a conclusion.'”
As the Agrupación and other allied groups celebrate Figueroa’s freedom, they continue to fight for the liberation of the more than 20 other women who remain imprisoned under circumstances similar to Figueroa’s. They also continue to fight to change the absolute ban on abortion.
In 2015, the Agrupación and the Center for Reproductive Rights presented the cases of Figueroa and eight other women before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for violations of their rights. Those violations of rights, as the Agrupación said in a statement, included “the right to due process, the right to health, and the right to non-discrimination.”
The case before the IACHR asks for structural changes to El Salvador’s law and practices, in order to guarantee “there will not be a repetition of the conditions that led to these situations.” The IACHR has not yet issued a ruling.
Although Figueroa and the others were not convicted of abortion, the ban and the prejudices that accompany it form part of the social fabric that allow these cases to exist.
“El Salvador’s total abortion ban is causing pain and suffering to countless women and girls and their families and clearly violates their human rights. El Salvador must decriminalize abortion without delay, and immediately and unconditionally release all women and girls imprisoned for having had an abortion or having suffered obstetric emergencies,” said Amnesty International in a statement.
The next few weeks are critical because on May 1, the newly elected and much more conservative legislature will be sworn in. Any window for change that exists will shrink to a sliver.
Meanwhile, while Figueroa is excited about leaving the Ilopango Women’s Prison, she feels “nerves” about finding a job after spending more than a decade behind bars. Upon her release, she met with her friend Teodora Vasquez, another member of Las 17, who was freed with a commutation of sentence on February 15. They told Rewire.News they had always hoped to be freed at the same time in order to support each other through the transition.
“We know some people discriminate against us on the outside,” said Figueroa.