Court upholds Salvadoran woman's 30-year sentence after stillbirth


San Salvador (AFP)

A Salvadoran court on Wednesday upheld a 30-year prison sentence being served by a woman whose miscarriage in 2007 was prosecuted as homicide under draconian anti-abortion laws.

The San Salvador tribunal rejected an appeal filed by Teodora Vasquez, 34, who has already spent a decade behind bars.

"The tribunal has reached the conclusion that the prison sentence against Teodora Vasquez should be confirmed," one of the judges said.

Vasquez's appeal had been backed by rights groups, including Amnesty International, which regard El Salvador's prohibition on all abortions -- no exceptions -- as unconscionable.

The head of the US Center for Reproductive rights, Nancy Northup, slammed the verdict in a statement, saying: "The Salvadoran court is perpetuating the criminal prosecution of women who suffer pregnancy complications -- denying women their dignity, freedom and rights."

Vasquez is one of 27 women currently incarcerated in the small Central American country for falling foul of the laws against abortion.

Last week, as proceedings opened, Vasquez -- a single mother to a previously born child -- pleaded to be set free, saying: "I am paying for a crime I didn't commit."

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, and in January 2008 she was convicted and sentenced for aggravated homicide.

Under a law that came into force in 1998, all abortions are illegal in El Salvador, regardless of whether the pregnancy resulted from rape or posed a medical threat to the woman.

Prison terms for abortion range from two to eight years, but the women can be charged with more serious crimes instead, as in Vasquez's case.

Her defense lawyer said there were "glaring errors" in her original trial, including the way the cause of death of the baby was presented in court as drowning while the autopsy found it was asphyxiation.

The harshness of El Salvador's anti-abortion laws was highlighted in 2013, when a 22-year-old woman who was being forced to give birth to an unviable baby whose brain had not developed was only allowed to have an early-term cesarian after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights intervened.

El Salvador's Congress has for a year been studying a proposal to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, risk to the mother's life, or where fetuses are unlikely to survive, but no decision has been made on any changes.