Salvadoran woman jailed for 'abortion' pleads for freedom

Carlos Mario Marquez, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 09 2017 05:53 AM

Teodora del Carmen Vasquez speaks with her attorney as she waits in a court of justice for a sentence review hearing in San Salvador, El Salvador, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - A Salvadoran woman jailed for 30 years for a miscarriage deemed to be an illegal abortion on Friday pleaded for her freedom before a court revising her sentence.

"I am paying for a crime I didn't commit," Teodora Vasquez, 34, told the tribunal in San Salvador.

Judges hearing the matter adjourned the hearing until next Wednesday.

Vasquez is one of 27 women imprisoned in El Salvador for falling foul of anti-abortion laws that are among the most draconian on the planet. 

Under a law that came into force in 1998, all abortions are illegal in the Central American nation, regardless of whether the pregnancy resulted from rape or posed any medical threat to the woman. Prison terms range from two to eight years. 

But police and prosecutors often charge suspects with far more serious crimes -- such as in Vasquez's case, in which she was convicted and sentenced in 2008 for aggravated homicide.

She suffered a stillbirth in July 2007, in her ninth month of pregnancy, while at the school where she worked. She tried to call paramedics, in vain, before falling unconscious.

Police accused her of inducing the miscarriage.

In court, Vasquez said the miscarriage was "a very sad moment for me, because I was expecting my baby, I wanted to have it, to have it with me."

The prosecutor applied for the suspension of proceedings to have more time to study the case and to interview the arresting officers.

CALLS TO SCRAP THE SENTENCE

Her lawyer and rights groups opposed the suspension, and are calling for the court to annul the sentence.

"We regret that Teodora, who has been locked up for 10 years, has to wait another week for justice to be done," Morena Herrera, from a Citizens' Group for the Decriminalization of Ethical Therapeutic Abortion (ACDATEE), told AFP.

The court has the options of scrapping the sentence, reducing it, upholding the original sentence, or ordering a new trial.

Vasquez's defense lawyer, Victor Hugo Mata, has said there were "glaring errors" in his client's 2008 trial, not least in the way the cause of death of the baby was presented.

El Salvador's Congress has for a year been studying a proposal to decriminalize abortions in cases of rape, risk to the mother's life, or where fetuses are unlikely to survive.

The harshness of the current law was highlighted in 2013, when a 22-year-old woman was being forced to give birth to a baby whose brain had not developed in the womb, and which was certain to die in delivery. The woman's own health was also deemed to be at serious risk. 

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights gave a verdict allowing the woman to have an early cesarean section, after which the baby died.