Latin America

El Salvador court upholds 30-year prison sentence for woman whose baby died during childbirth

Lawyers for Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, 34, argued that evidence overwhelmingly showed their client did not intentionally kill her baby 10 years ago. Vásquez was hoping to return to her 14-year-old son.

A court in El Salvador decided late Wednesday to uphold a 30-year prison sentence for Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who gave birth to a stillborn baby in 2007. Prosecutors accused her of killing her newborn and charged her with homicide.

After the verdict was announced, the room fell silent except for the cries of Vásquez’s mother.

Vásquez turned to her lawyers in shock and frustration. “Teodora was shocked,” said her lawyer, Katia Recinos. “She said: 'I am innocent and I need to keep going.’”

She expected to be released and reunited with her 14-year-old son, who was three-years-old when she was sent to jail.

"She’ll go back to jail knowing she’s innocent," Recinos said.

Prosecutors did not elaborate on their reasoning Wednesday, only stating that evidence was not sufficient to clear Vásquez of charges.

Vásquez, 34, has been in jail at the Ilopango Women’s Prison for over 10 years. She told Univision in September that she has read over 500 books during that time. Before losing her baby she had studied to third grade. Now she’s at a high school level.

Vásquez is one of 17 women, known as “ Las 17” (“The 17”), who between 1999 and 2011 were sentenced following reported miscarriages, most on charges of aggravated homicide.

El Salvador has one of the harshest abortion laws in the world. With staunch support from the country’s Catholic Church and a powerful pro-life lobby, abortion became illegal in 1998 in El Salvador in all cases including rape. It’s one of only five countries in the world where abortion is not allowed even to save the life of a pregnant mother.

The Salvadoran government has also arrested dozens of women for abortion (which carries a sentence of up to eight years) and then convicted them of killing their newborns—slapping them with charges of aggravated homicide, which can carry sentences of up to 50 years.

Vásquez’s lawyers filed an appeal in May. On Wednesday, they demonstrated inconsistencies between the original autopsy performed on the fetus in 2007 and the testimony given by a doctor six months after Vásquez’s arrest. The judges who decided to uphold the sentence were the same judges who sentenced her 10 years ago.

Now, lawyers await the response of a parallel process to reduce their client’s sentence. They will also appeal the court’s decision after December 20, which is when the court will read the sentence and explain why they decided to keep Vásquez in prison.

"In El Salvadoran courts, women are only valued as mothers, and any woman who doesn't somehow measure up to these impossible standards of motherhood are punished to the fullest extent of the law,” said Jocelyn Viterna, a sociology professor at Harvard who has been following Vásquez’s case and was present in the courtroom.

“The irony is that the prosecutors has never held the state accountable for failing to send an ambulance when Teodora called 911. And yet they insist on holding her accountable for somehow not preventing a natural stillbirth, even when the help she called for never came,” she said. “This to me demonstrates the powerful gender discrimination embedded in the Salvadoran judicial system.”