Analysis Human Rights

‘Why Such Violent Treatment of These Women in El Salvador?’ Asks Commission on Human Rights

Kathy Bougher

Earlier this month, Christina Quintanilla, who spent four years in prison after experiencing a miscarriage, testified in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the effects of the El Salvador's total abortion ban on the country's women.

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

In 2004, as an 18-year-old mother of a small child, Christina Quintanilla experienced a spontaneous abortion in the bathroom at her home, lost the fetus she was carrying, and lay unconscious and bleeding heavily.

Her mother took her to the hospital to get medical care, where doctors performed a dilation and curettage procedure, a frequent practice for miscarriages.

“While I was coming out of the anesthesia, I remember seeing a man dressed in blue,” Quintanilla told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) earlier this month in Washington, D.C., along with recounting the rest of her story. “That seemed odd since doctors in El Salvador wear white.  The man asked me my name and then told me, ‘Christina Quintanillayou are under arrest for aggravated homicide!’ I was shocked.”

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Quintanilla continued, “I don’t understand how the Ministry of Health let someone come in to interrogate me when I was still barely conscious.”

Quintanilla, who ultimately spent four years in prison, was one of more than dozens of women in El Salvador who have been convicted and incarcerated for obstetric complications on charges related to the country’s total ban on abortion. Now 29, she had come to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of the IACHR, part of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which El Salvador is a member. The hearing not only highlighted Quintanilla’s story, which closely parallels that of many other women in the country; it also illuminated the Salvadoran government’s failure to acknowledge the real effect of its laws on its citizens.

El Salvador’s Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), its sister organization, Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local (Feminist Collective for Local Development), and the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) had petitioned for last week’s hearing to compel the IACHR to make a report on the situation facing women in El Salvador, possibly leading to a change in the country’s strict abortion policy.

El Salvador has signed two OAS human rights conventions: the 1977 American Convention on Human Rights and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. When a country signs on to conventions like these, they agree that their laws must correspond to them; the petitioners believe that this is not the case in El Salvador. If the IACHR agrees, it can make recommendations to governments to take particular actions; if those recommendations are not followed, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, also part of the OAS, could choose to legally require the country to do so.

“In August 2005, I was [sentenced] to prison for 30 years,” Quintanilla told the IACHR, describing a judicial process that included a public defender not knowing her name—suggesting the defender had not read her file before trial—and a forensic report for her stillborn infant that listed the cause of death as “undetermined.” “My case was in the media as, ‘woman sentenced to 30 years for killing her baby,’ and as a result my life was in danger in prison. A woman in prison for abortion is in more danger than someone who is there for extortion or drugs.”

Quintanilla is now working with the Agrupación, a feminist organization that fights for reproductive justice in El Salvador. The group helped to free Quintanilla in 2009; it has aided in the release of nine other women in jail on abortion-related charges to date. It also requested pardons for the group of women known as Las 17, who are also in prison with convictions related to obstetric emergencies, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a change in the legislation that prohibits all abortions.

In prison, Quintanilla “met a human rights lawyer who was concerned that I was convicted without any evidence,” she continued, describing an attorney who works closely with the Agrupación. “After attempting several legal procedures, he filed for a commutation of sentence, which shortened my sentence.”

Upon her release, Quintanilla recounted, “The court said there had been a ‘judicial error.’ That judicial error meant I spent four years in prison and lost contact with my family. When I got out the media didn’t say I had been imprisoned because of a ‘judicial error.’ I was still the woman convicted of murdering my baby. I still have a criminal record, and that makes life difficult for me to this day.”

Quintanilla asked the IACHR to make sure this didn’t happen to any other women, and to stand up for those still in prison.

Angelica Rivas, an attorney with the Agrupacion and the Colectiva Feminista, testified after Quintanilla as to violations of doctor-patient confidentiality, lack of adequate defense, and other various human rights violations she argued are common in the women’s cases. However, she also highlighted the gender stereotypes that tend to carry weight in the judicial proceedings. For example, she said, judges and prosecutors frequently invoke the stereotype of the “super mother,” who, even when unconscious herself, has the responsibility to save the life of her child. If she did not succeed in saving the child’s life, according to this logic, then she must have intended to murder her child.

Representatives from CRR requested that the IACHR visit the women’s prison in El Salvador to understand the situation in greater depth; that it solicit further information from the government; that it review other women’s pending cases; and that it hold the Salvadoran government accountable to the policies it promised to uphold with the signing of conventions.

The four Salvadoran government representatives present at the hearing opened their testimony by stating that they had not been told that the topic of the hearing was women imprisoned for charges resulting from obstetric emergencies. They had arrived, they said, prepared to discuss prison conditions for women, but nothing specifically related to women being incarcerated due to obstetric emergencies.

Although Quintanilla mentioned the dangers she faced in prison in her testimony, which have also been reported by Rewire, that was not why the petitioners had called the hearing. Government representatives proceeded to give testimony about various efforts and programs to improve prison conditions, but never once mentioned women imprisoned for obstetric emergencies.

After the government representatives had concluded their testimonies, IACHR rapporteur on the rights of the child Rosa María Ortiz opened the hearing’s question period by asking the Salvadoran government representatives, “Why such violent treatment of these women in El Salvador?” She then proceeded to list issues she wanted the government to respond to, including the role of religion, the role of the Ministry of Health in resolving problems in public hospitals—such as the fact that it is frequently physicians who report women to the police—and ways to prevent sending women to prison while these doubtful cases are being resolved. She also asked what happened to women who left children behind when they went to prison.

Tracy Robinson, IACHR rapporteur for the rights of women, commented, “I regret that the State has not been capable of responding.” She then asked the government officials to explain through what avenues, whether executive or legislative, the State would be able to resolve the problems of women imprisoned for obstetric complications as well as the further human rights violations they reportedly experience in prison.

IACHR President Rose-Marie Belle Antoine expressed her frustration with the lack of an adequate governmental response in the hearing and requested that the government respond in writing to the specific questions the IACHR raised, which they agreed to do.

Paula Avila-Guillen, CRR’s attorney and program specialist, pointed out that she herself had met with government officials more than once in El Salvador, discussing ways to mitigate the criminalization of women; the failure to observe doctor-patient confidentiality; and the need to differentiate between spontaneous abortion or miscarriage, an obstetric emergency, and an induced abortion. In spite of those conversations, she noted, “the cases continue to come from the hospitals.”

There is not yet a definitive date by which the IACHR will issue its report on the hearing, especially since it must await the written responses from the Salvadoran government.

Katia Recinos, Agrupación legal team coordinator, expressed in an email to Rewire her “indignation” about the government’s failure to prepare for the hearing, noting that this demonstrates “how very far officials are from understanding the situation of women imprisoned for having obstetric emergencies.”

Recinos is hopeful, however, about CRR’s request that the IACHR visit the prison in El Salvador. “It will be international pressure that will push the government to initiate a dialogue. I hope that they visit the prison, review other cases from El Salvador, and sanction the Salvadoran government for not revising its legislation.”

Agrupación member Alberto Romero pointed out through email that on October 12, a week before the hearing, the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General for Human Rights issued a report on reproductive rights in the country that called for a “dialogue” on the country’s abortion legislation. Most supporters interpret this as a push for changing the law to be less strict. “The fact that the hearing was held puts pressure on the government,” Romero wrote. “We will examine the report from the IACHR to see how it links to the call from Human Rights for a dialogue.”

Avila-Guillen also envisions potentially positive outcomes of the hearing, noting that more global attention paid to the issue may compel the Salvadoran government to at least start considering ways to modify legislation. “The government can’t hide from us,” she told Rewire. “The commission demanded that they respond. The important outcome is that the situation is more visible now, and the commission can help open the dialogue.”

At the hearing, Quintanilla had the last word. She looked the government representatives in the eye. “What I hope is that this does not continue to happen,” Quintanilla said. “My heart and my soul hurt knowing that other women are still in prison and that their lives are at risk.”

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

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The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

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.”