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Imelda Cortez (right) appearing publicly with her grandmother. Photo courtesy of FESPAD

On December 17, 2018, after spending nearly two years in prison, 20-year-old Imelda Cortez was acquitted and freed by a judge in El Salvador. A survivor of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Imelda had been charged with attempted murder after giving birth to a baby girl in an outdoor latrine.

In reality, Imelda, who grew up in an impoverished rural family in Jiquilisco, had suffered an obstetric emergency that nearly took her life. But under El Salvador’s oppressive anti-abortion laws, she was accused of trying to kill her child and sent to prison, where she was held for 20 months without medical or psychological support.

Had it not been for a robust network of Salvadoran activist groups, including two grantees that the Fund for Global Human Rights supports through cooperation with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Imelda may have remained locked away for decades.

“I have to forget everything I have endured”

Imelda’s legal nightmare began in April 2017, when she was overcome by an excruciating pain in her abdomen. Confused and terrified, she ran to an outdoor toilet where she began hemorrhaging vast amounts of blood. Minutes later, Imelda’s mother found her daughter  unconscious and bleeding heavily—but alive.

Neighbors helped rush Imelda to the nearest hospital. Upon examination, a doctor discovered a placenta and, suspecting an attempt to end the pregnancy, reported Imelda to the police. Police and soldiers were dispatched to the Cortez home, where they inspected a septic tank and found a wriggling, crying infant. They brought the baby girl to the hospital and, miraculously, she survived.

From the outset, Imelda protested that she had no idea she was pregnant.  When questioned by medical staff, she said that she had been repeatedly raped by her 70-year-old stepfather from the time she was 12. DNA testing later confirmed that the pregnancy was a result of the ongoing abuse.

Despite her years of victimization and repeated statements of innocence, Imelda was taken directly from the hospital to prison, where she was charged with attempted murder. During her pre-trial detention, she received no psychological support. On nine separate occasions, a psychological assessment was scheduled, only to be cancelled due to a lack of resources. When the assessment was finally performed, it revealed that Imelda had a mild cognitive disability; neither this nor her history of sexual abuse were considered in the lead-up to her trial.

Where abortion is murder, miscarriage is doubted, and mother’s lives mean little

El Salvador has some of the strictest anti-abortion legislation in the world. A 1998 law bans the procedure, even in cases of rape or when a mother’s life is at risk. Medical professionals themselves face long prison sentences if they fail to report suspected cases to authorities. The draconian law has led to a large number of miscarriages of justice: 129 women have been prosecuted on abortion charges in the last decade. Several have received sentences of to up to 40 years—even when, like Imelda, they suffered an obstetric emergency, or a miscarriage or stillbirth.

For years, local and national women’s rights groups have been pushing back against El Salvador’s abusive laws and policies. They have also been working to help women charged with the ‘crime’ of abortion build cases to support their innocence—or, at the very least, to reduce their sentences. This includes the Citizen’s Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion (La Agrupación), a Fund grantee since 2017.

Shortly after police arrested Imelda, La Agrupación took up her case and petitioned the courts to carry out the DNA test that proved Imelda’s allegations against her stepfather.

Following the international attention given to Imelda’s case the courts finally took action on January 16th 2019, arresting Pablo Hernandez and charging him with rape. He remains in prison awaiting a date for his trial.

La Agrupación repeatedly called for all charges against Imelda to be dropped. The public prosecutor’s office refused these appeals and, over the course of the next year and a half, the public hearing was postponed on seven occasions. Fortunately, La Agrupación was not alone in their fight for Imelda’s freedom.

It takes a movement

Fearing that justice would not be achieved, women’s organizations in El Salvador lobbied vigorously to draw international attention to 24 additional cases of women currently imprisoned on abortion charges. In the days leading up to Imelda’s trial, they gathered 69,000 signatures calling on the Supreme Court to recognize that she had committed no crime.

Meanwhile, La Agrupación and the Foundation for the Study of the Implementation of the Law (FESPAD)—another Fund grantee—joined the Institute of Human Rights at Central American University to assemble a legal team to support Imelda. The team has been at the forefront of international and national campaigns on behalf of dozens of other women facing similar charges.

The collective efforts of La Agrupación, FESPAD, and their allies paid off when the charges against Imelda were dropped and she was released from prison in December. It was the culmination of a year of legal successes for La Agrupación and FESPAD, who also helped secure the release of four other women convicted of murdering their babies. They include Mayra Verónica Figueroa Marroquín, who had served 15 years for what her supporters say was a late-term miscarriage, and Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who had served more than 10 years for aggravated murder after her baby was born dead in 2008.

While welcoming the decision to free Imelda, FESPAD’s director, Saul Banos, said, “Justice has only been partially achieved. Now we want to see her abuser in court so that he can be held accountable for the trauma suffered by Imelda and her daughter.” Lawyers from FESPAD and La Agrupación also continue to work on the cases of the 24 other women currently in prison under the anti-abortion law.

Together with the broader women’s rights movement in El Salvador, FESPAD and La Agrupación are also continuing to advocate for legislative and policy changes that uphold women’s and girls’ rights to health and reproductive freedom. It’s an issue that led the Fund to begin working in El Salvador in 2017—and one we plan to stay with for years to come.

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