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El Salvador upholds 30-year sentence in stillbirth case

Court rejects appeal of Teodora del Carmen Vasquez, who was convicted of homicide under country's strict abortion law.

Teodora del Carmen Vasquez

A court in El Salvador has upheld the 30-year prison sentence of a woman who was charged with homicide under the country's strict abortion law after she says she suffered a stillbirth.

Teodora del Carmen Vasquez was seeking to have her conviction overturned after spending nearly a decade in jail after she says gave birth to her stillborn daughter in 2007.

A court on Thursday, however, rejected her appeal and upheld the sentence.

Carmen Vasquez, said earlier this year while awaiting the court date, said she did not know she had delivered her child when the police showed up to her workplace, handcuffed her and took her jail.

"I never realised I had my baby, I was waiting for help, I didn't even know I was losing so much blood," she said.

"When police arrived, they told me they had to arrest me because I had killed my baby, this never happened," she said. 

The state accused her of aborting her child, while her lawyers and supporters say she delivered the baby stillborn.

Strict abortion law

El Salvador is one of only five countries to criminalise abortion in all circumstances. 

Under the law, a woman can be accused of abortion or homicide, even in cases of rape or when the woman's health is at risk.

The law also penalises health providers who do not report suspected abortions, which rights groups have said creates an environment in which women who suffer miscarriages early in pregnancy or stillbirths are often reported to police.

A woman can be punished with a sentence of up to eight years for an abortion, and in some cases up to 50 years if a judge determines "homicide" was committed.

Katia Recinos, one of Carmen Vasquez's lawyers, said before the court ruling that she was hopeful based on new evidence that her client's case would be overturned.

The lawyer argued that the initial forensic investigation after the incident was "incomplete" and new evidence found that the baby died before it was born.

But on Thursday, the court concluded that there were no irregularities in the forensic evidence, according to local media.

'Outrageous step backward'

Human rights groups condemned the court's decision, calling it an "outrageous step backward for justice". 

"Teodora's tragic story is a sad illustration of everything that is wrong with the justice system in El Salvador, where human rights seem to be a foreign concept," Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

"Instead of punishing Teodora for being a woman, authorities in El Salvador must urgently take a hard look at their outrageous anti-abortion law and take immediate steps to repeal it," she added.

Other groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called on El Salvador to decriminalise abortion, saying the current law "poses risks to women's life and health".

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced that would change the law to allow abortion in some circumstances, such as rape or when a woman's health is at risk.

The proposed legislation remains in committee.

Last summer, a group of UN experts also urged the country to "allow the termination of pregnancy in specific circumstances".

According to El Salvador-based Alliance for Women's Health and Life, there were at least 147 cases between 2000 and 2014 in which a woman was charged under the abortion law.  

READ MORE: El Salvador rape victim jailed 30 years for stillbirth

Earlier this year, a 19-year-old rape survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison after she suffered a stillbirth due to complications during her pregnancy.

Carmen Vasquez is also part of a group known as "Las 17" or "The 17", which comprises women who were convicted between 1999 and 2011 after losing their babies.

Three of the women have had their convictions overturned after the Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion - a pro-choice organisation - along with Amnesty International petitioned the Supreme Court to free all 17 of the women.

For Carmen Vasquez, it remains unclear what her next steps will be.

According to local media, her lawyers are still evaluating if there is another legal process they can take.

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