El Salvador court frees woman on trial after bearing rapist's baby

Imelda Cortez, 20, faced an attempted murder charge under draconian abortion laws after being raped by her stepfather

A rape victim who was charged with attempted murder in El Salvador after giving birth to her abuser’s baby has been found not guilty and freed from jail.

Imelda Cortez, 20, has been in custody since April 2017 after giving birth in a latrine to a baby girl fathered by her abusive stepfather.

She was facing 20 years in prison after prosecutors argued that failing to tell anyone about the pregnancy or seek medical attention for the baby amounted to attempted murder.

The decision to prosecute Cortez, who suffered years of sexual abuse, had prompted outrage around the world.

But on Monday morning, prosecutors reduced the charge from attempted murder to abandonment – and offence which carries a 12-month jail term.

Then, in a dramatic turn of events, the court declared Cortez not guilty of any crime, and ruled she was free to go home. Cortez always maintained her innocence, and that she did not know she was pregnant.

Cortez walked free on Monday afternoon to elated chants of “sí se pudo” or “yes she could” by 200 or so joyous supporters outside the courtroom.

In what’s been hailed a precedent setting ruling, the judge concluded that the court could not expect Imelda to have acted differently given the emotional and psychological damage inflicted by the sexual violence she suffered since childhood.

Monday’s verdict was welcomed by campaigners who called for urgent reform to save other women suffering the dire consequences of El Salvador’s total ban on abortion.

“We are extremely happy, and thankful for everyone’s support. It took the whole world to make the judges and prosecutors see what we’ve been saying for years: an obstetric emergency is not a crime,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, the director of Latin America Initiatives at the New York-based Women’s Equality Centre and part of Cortez’s legal team.

El Salvador is one of four countries where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, even if the woman is raped, her health or life is at risk, or if the foetus is seriously deformed.

Abortion was criminalised 21 years ago, after legislators from across the political spectrum voted to strip women of their reproductive rights without any public debate or medical consultation about the consequences.

The draconian ban has led to a string of miscarriages of justice in a conservative, machista culture that enables the persecution of women.

Most cases involve poor and single women from rural areas who are convicted on tenuous evidence after having a spontaneous obstetric gynaecological complication such as a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Cortez was rushed to hospital after complaining of severe pain and bleeding heavily, where the emergency room doctor suspected an abortion and called the police.

The police discovered the newborn girl, healthy and breathing, in the outdoor latrine, and took her to hospital where doctors found no evidence of physical harm. It was then that Cortez realized that she’d been pregnant as a result of being raped by her 70-year-old stepfather.

After she was charged with attempted murder, her stepfather visited her in hospital, threatening to kill her, her siblings and her mother if she reported the abuse. Another patient overheard and told a nurse, who called the police.

At first, prosecutors accused Cortez of inventing the abuse to justify her crime, until a DNA test confirmed the baby’s paternity. Her stepfather was eventually detained, but has not been charged with any crime.

During her 17-month pre-trial detention, Cortez was denied access to psychological support and never allowed to hold her baby daughter.

Cortez is the sixth wrongly imprisoned woman freed so far this year thanks to dogged campaigns by national and international reproductive rights groups. Another 24 are still serving 15 to 30 years in jail.

“We are very happy for Imelda but will not forget the other 24 women still in prison for suffering an obstetric complication. They must be released,” added lawyer Avila-Guillen.

Bertha María Deleón, Cortez’s lawyer, told the Guardian: “This ruling opens the door for the other jailed women and gives us hope because it shows that judges are finally daring to make decisions from a gender perspective rather than based on gender stereotypes. This judge shows us that the criminal justice is changing, slowly, but it is changing.”

Contributor

Nina Lakhani

The GuardianTramp

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