Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez was handed a 30-year prison sentence in 2017 for aggravated murder by a female judge who ruled the teenager had induced an abortion, which is a crime under any circumstance in the Central American nation.
Her sentence was annulled in February in an appeal before El Salvador’s top court, marking a victory for the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion (CDFA), a local rights group pushing to free about 20 jailed women with similar cases.
“We’re convinced that Evelyn is innocent,” Ana Martinez, one of Hernandez’s lawyers at the CDFA, told Reuters ahead of Monday’s court date. “We hope that on Monday the rule of law and justice wins in this country.”
El Salvador’s abortion law was implemented in 1998 after a campaign by a small group of powerful anti-abortion groups linked to the Catholic church. It has been a crime since 1997 in the socially conservative nation, even in cases of rape and incest, when the woman’s life is in danger or if the fetus is deformed.
Pro-choice activists say Hernandez’s retrial is an important test case that could signal the stance on abortion taken by El Salvador’s new President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June.
Bukele has said he believes abortion should be allowed only if the mother’s life is at risk.
“This case would be the first case that would be tried after the new president is in power,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, director for Latin America initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, a U.S.-based reproductive rights advocacy group.
“It will also send a message about what is the political mood.”
Hernandez, now 21 and from a poor rural community, said she was raped and did not realize she was pregnant until she went into labor in a bathroom and gave birth to a stillborn baby.
The CDFA said there was no proof that she tried to kill her baby and that she suffered a pregnancy-related complication.
While six other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have absolute bans on abortion, El Salvador stands out for its high number of convictions.
About 20 women are in jail for abortion crimes when they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications, some serving sentences of up to 40 years, the CDFA said.
The United Nations called on El Salvador in 2017 to issue a moratorium on applying its abortion law and to review all cases where women have been imprisoned for abortion-related crimes.
But attempts to pass a bill that would ease El Salvador’s abortion ban have failed.
“One of the factors is a very religious and strong evangelical society,” said Avila-Guillen, a human rights lawyer supporting CDFA cases.
“There’s no presumption of innocence. The moment that the word abortion gets thrown in a case, from that moment on women are guilty in the eyes of everyone.”
According to the CDFA, 129 women were convicted of abortion-related crimes between 2000 and 2011 in El Salvador. Since 2015, 26 women have faced charges of murder.