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Salvadoran woman who says she lost pregnancy in fall freed after serving 9 years on abortion sentence

Sara Rogel, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison over accusations that she sought an illegal abortion, is embraced by her mother upon her early release on June 7 in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Sara Rogel, a pregnant woman living in a village in El Salvador, was doing laundry when she slipped and fell. Her parents found her bleeding, she said, and rushed her to a nearby hospital, but she had already lost what advocates tracking her case called a “very wanted” pregnancy.

Instead of consoling her, doctors contacted the police. Rogel was accused of having an illegal abortion and handcuffed to her hospital bed. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide under El Salvador’s strict abortion ban, which often catches poor women suffering obstetric emergencies in its crosshairs, according to rights groups.

After nine years in prison, Rogel was released on parole and reunited with her family Monday.

Advocates who have pleaded her case hope that the Cojutepeque court’s decision will prove a bellwether of change in a country with a history of putting women who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths behind bars. And they hope it is another sign that a regional shift on abortion is taking root.

Abortion rights advocates throughout Latin America draw inspiration from Argentina vote

“We are hoping that this is the beginning of a few more of the women being released free,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, the executive director of the Women’s Equality Center who has advised Rogel’s legal team. “We are also hopeful that President [Nayib] Bukele will pay attention.”

Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive antiabortion laws and highest rates of death related to unsafe abortions. Six countries in the region ban abortion entirely. El Salvador is known for having a particularly draconian prohibition. Abortion has been illegal in the majority-Catholic country since 1998, even in cases of rape or where the mother’s life or health is at risk. Women found guilty can face years or even decades in prison.

Doctors also face prison time and the loss of medical licenses if they fail to report women and girls they suspect have undergone an abortion, which rights groups say incentivizes them to bring many obstetric emergencies that occur outside of hospitals to the attention of police.

“The large majority of these cases happen outside of [the capital] San Salvador in rural areas to women who are living in poverty and who don’t have the agency to advocate for themselves or who don’t have the resources,” Avila-Guillen said. “It really is the most vulnerable women whom the system decides to prosecute.”

Their cases are often rushed through courts, under procedures marred by irregularities. Rogel was one of three women who the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said last year were detained arbitrarily and denied due process. The U.N. group called on El Salvador to investigate their convictions, which it said were indicative of “structural problems” in the protection of women’s rights.

Avila-Guillen said that Rogel was under anesthesia in the hospital when she was first interrogated, had no attorney present and was not informed initially that she was being charged. In the courtroom, where she was given an attorney just before her hearing began, Avila-Guillen said, the burden of proof lay not on the prosecution but on the defense to prove that Rogel had not tried to terminate her pregnancy.

Rogel’s release came after a years-long campaign to free her. Her legal team had asked for a revision of her sentence, which the coronavirus put on hold because an expert witness has been unable to travel to El Salvador. The court granted Rogel provisional release while the review is pending.

The country’s Supreme Court earlier commuted her sentence to just over 10 years — a period that would end in 2022 — so Avila-Guillen said she was confident that given the timing, Rogel would not be sent back to prison.

Avila-Guillen said that lawyers and advocates will now focus on clearing her name. A declaration of innocence is necessary to prevent Rogel’s past conviction from haunting her as she tries to rebuild her life, Avila-Guillen said — and for the state to recognize that she was unjustly incarcerated.

“They all deserve to be recognized as innocent women, and they all deserve reparations,” Avila-Guillen said.

At least two dozen women have been incarcerated with abortion-related convictions in El Salvador since 1998, including many who claim to have had miscarriages or stillbirths. About 17 women are still unjustly detained after having experienced obstetric emergencies, according to the Women’s Equality Center.

Authorities have re-examined several cases and set some women free in recent years. Avila-Guillen said momentum slowed after Bukele took office in 2019. Though he is a staunch opponent of abortion, Bukele said during his campaign that he opposed sending women who had suffered obstetric emergencies to prison. But despite the fact that he enjoys broad public support and control of the legislature, he has not made the issue a priority, Avila-Guillen said.

Legislative efforts to legalize abortion in certain cases have gained little traction in recent years.

Women serving decades-long prison terms for abortion in El Salvador hope change is coming

Still, the needle appears to be slowly moving on abortion in much of Latin America. Argentina legalized elective abortion after years of demonstrations for reproductive rights that became known as the “green tide,” for the green scarves activists wore. Experts attributed their victory in part to activists’ framing of the issue as an urgent public health matter.

The change galvanized movements across the region, though most have seen less success. In July, Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected an effort to decriminalize abortion. Colombia’s constitutional court also decided last year to keep restrictive laws on the books.

In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal, a rape survivor who gave birth faces trial for attempted abortion

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is now considering the case of a Salvadoran woman who died of lymphoma while in prison for an abortion-related conviction. Attorneys are calling for the court to review similar convictions, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Rights groups hope Rogel’s release marks a step toward the repeal of abortion restrictions in El Salvador and the wider region.

“As the momentum grows, the opposition grows, but we believe that in Latin America we are in a moment where it is not about if it will happen but when it will happen,” Avila-Guillen said.

Read more:

[How the pandemic has affected abortion rules around the world]

[Women serving decades-long prison terms for abortion in El Salvador hope change is coming]

[Abortion rights advocates throughout Latin America draw inspiration from Argentina vote]