A woman who was imprisoned for four years under El Salvador’s anti-abortion laws has been released today, says Amnesty International.
María Teresa Rivera, 33, was released from prison when a judge ruled that there had not been sufficient evidence to convict her of the charges against her, and because she was suffering from serious health complications. Rivera was originally sentenced to serve forty years for “aggravated homicide” after having a miscarriage.
Se instala audiencia de revisión de sentencia a María Teresa Rivera, acusada de homicidio contra su recién nacida pic.twitter.com/AcojucP8Km— Central de Noticias (@CNoticiassv) May 20, 2016
Rivera was arrested in the hospital in 2011 after miscarrying in a public restroom, as hospital staff accused her of having had an abortion. As is typically the case with other women imprisoned under El Salvador’s abortion ban, she was unable to afford a good lawyer due to poverty, and she was convicted after a bizarre hearing that included testimony against her from one of her bosses, who said Rivera had known she was pregnant since January of 2011, which would have made her eleven months pregnant at the time of the miscarriage.
After her arrest, Rivera developed a kidney infection as a result of her miscarriage that went untreated throughout her entire prison term, leading her to finally get a chance to plead her case before another judge and ultimately leading to her release from prison.
Human rights groups are applauding her release as a triumph for women’s rights in Latin America, where four countries — Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Nicaragua — still outlaw abortion altogether, even in cases of rape, incest, and when it’s necessary for the mother’s survival.
“The release of María Teresa is yet another step towards justice in a country where women are treated as mere second class citizens,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. “She should have never been forced to spend one second behind bars. Her release must be a catalyst for change in El Salvador, where dozens of women are put in prison because of an utterly ridiculous anti-abortion law which does nothing but put the lives of thousands of women and girls in danger.”
Abortion has been illegal in all circumstances in El Salvador since a change in the penal code in 1998. According to Amnesty International, this change has led to wrongful prosecutions, misapplication of the justice system, and women being immediately and unjustly assumed guilty. The law affects impoverished rural women and girls in a vastly disproportionate way and creates extreme financial hardship for their families when they’re taken away to prison.
Human rights groups estimate that there are at least seventeen women currently imprisoned in El Salvador under circumstances similar to Rivera’s, arrested after pregnancy complications and convicted of abortion due to inability to afford competent legal defense. They are kept in tin-roofed rooms, sometimes with hundreds of other women, and often deprived of basic personal items like toilet paper and tampons. Visitations with family members are tightly restricted.
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez has been imprisoned in El Salvador since 2007 when she suffered a stillbirth. She was charged with aggravated homicide and, like Rivera, was unable to afford legal defense. She is currently serving a 30-year sentence.
El Salvador came under criticism for its reproductive laws earlier this year when the government told its citizens that women should avoid having babies for two years in response to the outbreak of the Zika virus. Not only is abortion banned in El Salvador, but access to birth control is strictly regulated and difficult to come by in the impoverished Catholic nation.
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