“At last, the nightmare is over,” Sonia Tábora exhaled as she left the courthouse in Sonsonate, El Salvador, on February 13. There, she had been declared innocent of aggravated homicide for the 2005 death of her newborn—for the second time.
That 12-year nightmare included seven-and-a-half years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit; retrials in 2012 and again in 2017, both of which found her not guilty; and years in between spent in legal and emotional limbo, not knowing if she would be sent back to prison. Her ordeal, advocates say, reflects the broader pattern of shoddy work and unjust convictions in the country.
Tábora is one of dozens of women who have faced criminal charges as a result of El Salvador’s absolute prohibition on abortion. In 2005, she was arrested after giving birth prematurely to a stillborn baby in a coffee field behind her family’s modest rural home. As her older sister, Maritza Isabel Contreras Tábora, testified in the last trial, which Rewire observed, Sonia had gone outside to use the latrine around 11 p.m., but did not return to the house.
Eventually, her sister found the slight, undernourished woman covered in blood, pale and unresponsive to Maritza’s questions as she stood under a bright moonlight. It took over two hours to transport Sonia from their remote rural hamlet to a local hospital, where doctors determined that she had given birth. Her family had not known she was pregnant. Family members, a doctor, and the police returned to the coffee field, eventually locating the body of a newborn. Police filed charges against Tábora, and from the hospital she was taken directly to jail.
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Initially, she was accused of abortion—which currently carries an eight-year prison sentence—but the charges were upgraded to aggravated homicide, for which she was found guilty that year. She spent the next seven years behind bars.
With the support of the local feminist group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), she was retried in 2012; a three-judge panel found her not guilty for lack of evidence.
But her nightmare didn’t end there. The Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice in El Salvador chose to review her case in late 2014, in what Tábora’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata Tobar, explained to Rewire was an unusual move. It concluded that the three-judge panel that found her not guilty in 2012 was incorrectly configured, because it included one of the judges who convicted her in the original trial. Thus, the chamber decided, the trial needed to be repeated, even though the state prosecutor had not appealed the decision.
By this time, Tábora had an infant son. Generally, she would have been incarcerated again while the case was tried, but Mata Tobar convinced the court to allow her to stay out of prison to care for her child.
From 2014 through February 2017, Tábora’s trial was postponed three times, each time requested by the state when judges or state witnesses did not arrive.
“I’m afraid of what could happen,” Tábora told Rewire a few days before her trial last week. “I don’t want to leave my son. And I know what it’s like inside [prison]. It was extremely painful for me.”
“You never get used to it,” she said.
“What Sonia lived, the criminalization, persecution, and re-victimization, was cruel, inhuman, degrading, and a form of torture. The State is supposed to be responsible for providing access to justice. However, each time she appeared at court in order to try to prove her innocence yet again, the hearings were postponed, and she was denied access to justice because of errors committed by the judicial system,” said Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, in an interview with Rewire.
“On the psychological level, this caused terrible fear of being separated once again from her family, of leaving her son an orphan, and of returning to the inhumane conditions she had already experienced in prison for more than seven years,” Garcia said.
Last week, a three-judge panel found Tábora not guilty a second time.
This resolution reflects a very basic legal principle, as Katya Recinos, attorney with the Agrupación, told Rewire. If the prosecution cannot prove that a crime was committed, then there is no case to take to trial. In Tábora’s case, the prosecutor’s office never conducted an autopsy of the newborn found in the coffee field. Furthermore, medical experts in both trials testified based on existing evidence that the newborn had been stillborn.
“Therefore, there was no cause or manner of death established and no way to establish if a crime was committed. Tábora never should have been tried and certainly not convicted and imprisoned,” Recinos said.
In the final trial last week, even the prosecutor concluded her statement by saying, as reported by Gloria Moran in Contrapunto, “There is no autopsy. The Prosecutor’s Office would be irresponsible in saying that (the girl) was born alive …. Therefore the prosecutor asks that the case be resolved according to the law.”
Tábora is not the only woman in El Salvador convicted and imprisoned despite a lack of evidence that she committed a crime. Recinos told Rewire that she has reviewed court documents of “Las 17“—a group of Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges—and other women whose cases are with the Agrupación, all women with stories very similar to Tábora’s. Recinos noted several cases in which judges and prosecutors “reasoned that linking a woman to a deceased baby or fetus through a DNA test—that is, proving that she was the mother—was sufficient to assume that the woman was responsible for the death.” This process was part of Tábora’s case, too.
Recinos added, “This incomplete legal work, misogynistic thinking about socially imposed roles of women, and insufficient legal analysis on the part of judges has contributed to long prison terms for poor women who cannot pay private lawyers.”
Oftentimes, as Mata Tobar told Rewire, the public lawyers defending women don’t note this kind of faulty evidence.
In addition to finding Tábora not guilty, the judges in her most recent trial declared that the Salvadoran government owed her compensation for damages suffered due to unjust imprisonment and for severe post-traumatic stress, as shown by a psychological evaluation from 2016 presented into evidence.
This is the second time judges have declared that a woman imprisoned in this manner was owed compensation from the state. The first was Maria Teresa Rivera, who was freed from prison in May 2016 after a new trial showed she was convicted without evidence to prove guilt.
“This shows that the government itself is recognizing its errors,” Garcia said.
Tábora’s nightmare appears to have subsided. But at least 17 women are still imprisoned on abortion-related charges after suffering pregnancy complications. Other cases are still in progress.
A bill currently pending in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly would reform the country’s laws to allow abortion under some circumstances. Advocates believe that such a legislative change would stop the groundless accusations that lead to women like Tábora being unjustly imprisoned.
Right now, as Garcia said, “The state can exercise its power over women’s bodies, particularly those who are young and live in poverty. That’s who pays the price.”