CIUDAD HIDALGO, El Salvador (AP) – A young rape victim who was suspected of having an abortion and charged with homicide was acquitted by a judge at a retrial Monday in a case that attracted international attention to El Salvador’s strict abortion laws.
Evelyn Beatriz HernÃ¡ndez, now 21, had served 33 months of a 30-year prison sentence when her conviction was overturned in February for lack of evidence and a new trial was ordered. Prosecutors had asked for a 40-year sentence.
The retrial was a first for such a case in the Central American nation, where prosecutors aggressively pursue legal cases against women who have miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies, accusing them of murder.
“Thank God, justice was done,” HernÃ¡ndez said following the announcement of the verdict, visibly emotional as dozens of women waited at the courthouse. “I also thank you who have been present here.”
“Yes we did!” the women chanted.
HernÃ¡ndez also thanked foreign diplomats who have followed the case closely. The Associated Press usually does not name victims of alleged sexual assault, but HernÃ¡ndez has spoken publicly about her case.
HernÃ¡ndez’s fetus was at 32 weeks in 2016 when she felt intense abdominal pains and delivered it into an outdoor toilet, and it was later found lifeless in a septic tank. Her mother said she found her passed out next to the latrine, and HernÃ¡ndez said she didn’t know she was pregnant.
Both women said they didn’t know there was a fetus in the tank, but prosecutors didn’t believe them and pressed charges. Forensic experts were unable to determine whether it died in the uterus or in the septic tank.
“We believe the judge has been very fair in his ruling,” defense lawyer Bertha MarÃa DeleÃ³n said. “He has said that there was no way to prove a crime and for that reason he absolved her.”
El Salvador is one of three Central American nations with total bans on abortion.
“This is a resounding victory for the rights of women in El Salvador. It reaffirms that no woman should be wrongly accused of homicide for the simple fact of suffering an obstetric emergency,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Guevara-Rosas called on El Salvador to cease “criminalizing women once and for all by immediately revoking the nation’s draconian anti-abortion laws.”