Commentary Media

Fundamentalists Ramp Up Attacks on Human Rights Group in El Salvador

Kathy Bougher

The fundamentalists “want to silence us, but it is not working," said Morena Herrera, president of the group leading the "Freedom for the 17" campaign, which seeks to free from prison 17 women unjustly incarcerated on abortion-related charges, in an interview with Rewire.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

Fundamentalist groups in El Salvador have escalated their media attacks against the “Freedom for the 17” campaign to the level of threats of criminal charges against campaign spokespeople. “Freedom for the 17” works to free from prison 17 women unjustly incarcerated on abortion-related charges. The campaign has responded to the media attacks with a principled stance asserting its legal and moral rights to its work.

Morena Herrera, president of the group leading the campaign, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), and one of the individuals directly targeted by the media attacks, asserted in a Skype interview with Rewire that, “It is not a crime to speak, and it is not a crime to fight against an unjust law or talk about why the law is unjust.” The fundamentalists “want to silence us, but it is not working.”

The latest round of attacks began with yet another calumnious newspaper column by Julia Regina de Calderon, president of Si a la Vida (Right to Life), published by the right-wing controlled mainstream daily El Diario de Hoy. De Calderon cited an interview with Herrera on the work and the goals of the group. She identifies Herrera as a feminist and an ex-guerrilla in the 1980s Salvadoran civil war who fights for the decriminalization of abortion, accurate descriptors, but apparently chosen to provoke ire among her followers.

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She fanned the fundamentalist flames by quoting Herrera saying, “We [the Agrupación], with the help of lawyers, offer them [women with abortion-related charges] the possibility of accessing justice.” De Calderon also notes that Herrera describes the international funding and legal support the Agrupación has received to promote “reflections on religious fundamentalism in the society.”

De Calderon followed those comments with partial quotes from the Salvadoran Criminal Code: “Article 136 of the Criminal Code says that ‘Any person who induces a woman or provides for her the … means … to perform an abortion, will be punished with a prison term of two to five years.'”

“Nevertheless,” de Calderon added, the Agrupación “promotes abortion with national campaigns such as that of the 17 cases in which the mothers were convicted for murdering their children already born, although this has nothing to do with abortion.” [Translation by author.]

Article 136 in its entirety states: “Any person who induces a woman or provides for her the economic means or other type of means so that she has an abortion performed, shall be condemned to prison for two to five years.”

Herrera says the Agrupación interprets de Calderon’s statements as a threat of criminal prosecution against those who speak out against the absolute prohibition on abortion. She also points out that the word “induce” is not defined in the law, and neither is “abortion” nor “other type of means.” De Calderon accuses the Agrupación of “promoting” abortion, which is also left undefined, but Herrera explains that what the Agrupación wants to promote is a national dialogue around the consequences of the absolute criminalization of abortion.

This is not a war over shades of meaning in words. There is a justifiable concern that the powerful oligarchy could utilize their preferred interpretations as justification for incarcerating spokespeople for the Agrupación. Herrera said there is a “lack of confidence” in the workings of the judicial system in the country. Although the Salvadoran Constitution includes freedom of expression, no one in the Agrupación doubts there is a possibility of criminal charges being levied.

Even with de Calderon’s latest column, El Diario de Hoy’s defamation of the Agrupación was not finished. Two days after the column, the newspaper published a three-page story titled, “Thousands of Dollars to Finance Campaign to Decriminalize Abortion,” in its Sunday edition, displaying photos of an odd assortment of funding applications and financial documents from the Agrupación, and implying misuse of allegedly exorbitant sums of international funding for the purpose of promoting abortion. The Agrupación decided they needed to respond with a press conference.

The press release reads in part:

We express our concern as we face the direct and indirect threats on the part of fundamentalist groups against the defenders of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador, directed principally at the spokespeople for the campaign “Freedom for the 17.” These threats have taken place through repeated opinion articles in the mass media oriented at delegitimizing and smearing the reputation of the work that human rights defenders carry out.

And it demanded that the Salvadoran government “guarantee protective measures and security for the defenders of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador, and that it create a favorable environment so that the defenders can exercise their right to defend the human rights of women.”

The tone and content of the press conference challenged the newspaper on its less-than-evidence-based reporting and once again stated the Agrupación’s desire for a civil, serious, and scientifically based conversation on the impacts of the criminalization of abortion.

In a follow-up summary of the press conference, to which Rewire has been given access, the Agrupación addressed the accusations of financial impropriety, noting that the information published by the newspaper came from internal documents and from unfunded grant applications, but not actual funding contracts.

The Agrupación wrote that it was willing to accept that the coverage of the financial questions “is the product of a genuine interest of El Diario de Hoy in informing the citizenry about the problem of the absolute criminalization of abortion in El Salvador. Nevertheless, it concerns us that this is done using erroneous data.”

That same document also challenged head-on El Diario de Hoy’s publication of repeated editorials attacking the Agrupación followed by the three pages of unfounded accusations of financial misconduct. The statement expressed concern that these actions “could be turning into a stage for threats to human rights defenders. For that reason this concern has been communicated to the Attorney General for Human Rights in El Salvador which has opened a file on the case in order to provide follow up,” the statement reads.

Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, said in a Skype interview with Rewire that Agrupación members have concerns about physical safety. “In such a highly fundamentalist country, you never know who you might meet up with.” Garcia noted that international media exposure provides a measure of safety at the organizational and personal levels.

Although the Agrupación and its supporters take seriously the threats and attempts to silence their work, they know that the attacks are responses to their successes. Just recently Amnesty International joined the conversation and the Human Rights Prosecutor in El Salvador has declared that abortion is a topic that the country must review.

The conviction that what they are doing is just and right comes through in the song to which Agrupación members include links to in their emails, “Nos Tienen Miedo Porque No Tenemos Miedo by Calle 13, a Puerto Rican alternative musical group. The title translates as, “They’re afraid of us because we’re not afraid.”

News Law and Policy

Freed From a Post-Miscarriage Prison Sentence, El Salvador Woman Could Face More Time Behind Bars

Kathy Bougher

Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

Two months ago, Maria Teresa Rivera was released from a 40-year prison sentence after spending more than four years behind bars. Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Rivera is part of the group known as “Las 17,” Salvadoran women who have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned based on El Salvador’s highly restrictive anti-abortion laws.

The government-employed prosecutor in Rivera’s case, María del Carmen Elias Campos, has appealed Rogel Zepeda’s decision overturning the original 2012 conviction and allowing Rivera to return to her now-11-year-old son. If the appeal is granted, Rogel Zepeda’s decision will be reviewed by a panel of justices. An unfavorable decision at that point could lead to a new trial.

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“I just don’t understand the prosecutor’s motivation for this appeal,” Rivera told Rewire in an interview. “We are very poor, and there is no one else but me to provide income for our family.”

According to Rivera’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata, the government tends to require “preventive imprisonment” of the accused during the trial process, which could last months or years. This “preventive imprisonment” could begin as soon as the panel approves an appeal.

Although “the law clearly allows the prosecution to appeal,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, told Rewire in an interview, “This appeal that questions the decision of the court that granted [Rivera] her freedom is not looking for the truth.”

Herrera pointed out that the witness for the prosecution, a government forensic specialist who performed the fetal autopsy, determined that the cause of fetal death was perinatal asphyxia. “At the trial the prosecutor’s own witness told the prosecutor that he could not accuse a person of a crime in this case of perinatal asphyxia,” Herrera recounted.

“So, if her own witness spoke against [the prosecutor] and said she was not correct, it seems to me that this appeal … is proof that the prosecutor is not seeking either justice or the truth.”

Hugo Mata explained to Rewire that the prosecutor’s appeal asserts that Judge Rogel Zepeda “did not employ the legal standard of ‘sana crítica,’ or ‘solid legal judgment’ in evaluating the evidence presented.”

Hugo Mata vigorously contests the prosecutor’s allegation, noting that the judge’s written decision went into significant legal detail on all the issues raised at the hearing. He believes that a responsible court should see that “there was nothing capricious or contradictory in his highly detailed and legally well-founded decision.”

The three-judge panel has ten working days, or until approximately July 12, to render a decision as to whether to grant the initial appeal, although such deadlines are not always rigidly observed.  If the panel does not grant the appeal, the decision to overturn the conviction will stand.

The Agrupación, including Hugo Mata, believes that the appeals panel will be swayed by knowing that the case is receiving widespread attention. As part of a campaign to bring attention to the appeal process, the Agrupación has set up an email address to which supporters can send messages letting the court know that justice for Rivera is of national and international importance.

“What most worries me is leaving my son alone again,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was forced to abandon him for four and a half years, and he suffered greatly during that time. He is just beginning to recover now, but he never wants to be apart from me. He tells me every day, ‘Mommy, you’re never going to leave me again, are you?’ I had to tell him about this appeal, but I promised him everything would be all right.”

“I was abandoned by my mother at the age of five and grew up in orphanages,” Rivera concluded. “I don’t want the same life for my son.”

News Human Rights

Judge Overturns Homicide Conviction of El Salvador Woman Jailed After a Miscarriage

Kathy Bougher

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Maria Teresa Rivera faced criminal charges in 2012 after experiencing obstetric complications.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

El Salvador trial court Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda on Friday overturned the 40-year prison sentence of Maria Teresa Rivera, who was convicted of aggravated homicide four years ago after experiencing a miscarriage in November 2011.

Rivera’s special session trial, which revisited her original 2012 conviction and sentence, began May 11. It resumed Friday after a weeklong recess to accommodate a key prosecution witness, a government forensic medicine specialist.

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera faced criminal charges after experiencing obstetric complications. In Rivera’s case, an unattended, unexpected labor resulted in the death of the fetus; an eventual autopsy report listed its cause of death as “perinatal asphyxia.” As previously reported by Rewire, Judge José Antonio Flores “interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act,” ultimately convicting her of aggravated homicide.

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Witnesses for the May 11 defense included four physicians who helped clarify a major source of confusion throughout the legal process over the use of the term “perinatal asphyxia.” In medical terms, they explained, it is a condition—the inadequate intake of oxygen by the fetus—that is an unfortunate cause of death, but which can occur naturally during the birth process. The person giving birth does not cause the death.

According to those present at the trial, the government-employed forensic medicine specialist testified Friday that there was no certainty as to how the fetus died of perinatal asphyxia or evidence that Rivera had done anything intentional to cause the death. Alberto Romero from the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Depenalization del Aborto, the Salvadoran feminist organization that has supported Rivera since her charge and conviction, noted to Rewire via phone and email the “professionalism and clarity” of the specialist.

In a courtroom packed with Salvadoran and international supporters, Rivera addressed the judge directly as part of the closing statement of her attorney, Victor Hugo Mata. According to Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, the room was absolutely silent as Rivera asked the judge to grant her freedom not just for herself, but also for her 10-year old son, whom she had not seen in three years. She showed the judge his photo and told him his name.

After a 30-minute recess, during which additional supporters outside on the streets chanted “freedom for Teresa,” the judge delivered his verdict: There was no evidence that Rivera had murdered her infant son, meaning the original verdict should be overturned.

As Rivera’s attorney Mata noted in the first part of the trial on May 11, the witness from forensic medicine who spoke Friday was also subpoenaed to appear at her original trial in 2012, but did not do so. Mata noted to the judge that if the specialist had testified at that trial, perhaps he would have been able to clarify the misconceptions about “perinatal asphyxia.”

If that had been the case, Romero said to Rewire after Friday’s trial, “perhaps Rivera would have been absolved at that time.”

According to Herrera, there are still about 25 women imprisoned in El Salvador under similar circumstances to Rivera’s. “Most of the imprisoned women experienced judicial errors similar to those that occurred in Maria’s Teresa trial,” she said.

We continue to work to change those medical and legal protocols for women already charged,” she told Rewire. However, she noted, “We also need to work to change the anti-abortion laws that criminalize abortion and also obstetric emergencies, and thereby set off the events that cause women to be unjustly imprisoned.”

After four years behind bars, Rivera left the courthouse on Friday a free woman. “Thanks so much to everyone who has helped me,” she told Rewire by phone. “What’s most important is that I’ve hugged my son again.”