Latin America

Woman sentenced to 30 years in jail for having a stillbirth released from prison in El Salvador

Teodora del Carmen Vásquez is one of dozens of women who have been charged with aggravated homicide in El Salvador following reported miscarriages.
15 Feb 2018 – 6:36 PM EST

Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who was charged with murder after delivering a stillborn baby in 2007 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, was released from jail on Thursday. She had served more than 10 years of her sentence, in a case that garnered international attention.

El Salvador’s Supreme Court declared in a ruling released Wednesday night that Vásquez’s sentence should be commuted, citing “arguments of a legal nature, of justice and equity.”

The ruling was the result of a process initiated over two years ago by a group of government ministries, recommending Vásquez be released early from prison due to her conduct and other factors.

A parallel legal process, to completely pardon Vásquez, was denied by a court in December. That means that courts continue to maintain Vásquez’s guilt.

As she emerged from the Ilopango Women’s Prison, located outside the capital San Salvador, Thursday morning, Vásquez was greeted by her mother and father, as well as her 14-year-old son, who was just three-years-old when she went to jail.

“This is a relief for Teodora and her family,” her attorney, human rights lawyer Victor Hugo Mata, told Univision over the phone. “She is free and we're very happy.”

Vásquez is one of dozens of women who have been sentenced to extensive jail time in the past two decades in El Salvador following reported miscarriages. Though prosecutors declared they killed their babies, the women insist that their newborns were either born dead or died shortly after delivery.

On July 13, 2007, Vásquez was nine months pregnant when she began to feel ill at the school where she worked as a cook, she told Univision in October. She called 911 to report a pain that she thought indicated she was in labor. Hours passed, the pain got worse, and the ambulance never arrived. After she felt the urge to go to the bathroom, she hovered over the toilet and passed out. She remembers only fragments of what happened next.

When police arrived, they said they found her baby in the toilet bowl, lifeless. They arrested her.

Vásquez’s lawyers argued that she suffered a severe hemorrhage, and that her baby was stillborn.

The prosecution showed autopsy reports from the Institute of Legal Medicine, which it said indicated that the baby was "born alive" and died "by drowning asphyxiation" in order to make the case against Vásquez.

Expert medical witnesses refuted those claims, calling them false and misleading.

“I never expected to be here,” Vásquez told Univision in a prison interview in October. “It’s different when you’re guilty but I am completely innocent.”

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.

Human rights groups say that those laws result in an environment of discrimination and mistrust.

That has garnered international condemnation in recent years, with groups like the United Nations and Amnesty International calling for an end to the unjust practice of punishing women for apparent miscarriages and other obstetric emergencies. Nearly all such cases in El Salvador involve poor women who have little to no access to healthcare or legal representation.

Women in El Salvador live in a “repressive, discriminatory, criminalizing context when it comes to their sexual and reproductive decisions,” Erika Guevara Rosas, the Americas Director at Amnesty International, told Univision. “Justice is blind against women, even when there’s forensic and scientific evidence.”

Mata says he will continue to push the courts for Vasquez’s conviction to be overturned and to seek compensation and redress for the 10 years that she spent behind bars.

At least 27 other women are still incarcerated under El Salvador’s draconian abortion law, according to Amnesty International.

Photos: Activists push for greater access to abortion in El Salvador

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