The retrial of a teenage rape victim will resume on Thursday in El Salvador, in a case that has drawn global attention to the country’s strict anti-abortion laws.
Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez, now 21, will return to the Ciudad Delgado courtroom, after being accused of inducing an abortion and convicted of aggravated murder when she was a teenager. She pled not guilty to these charges when the retrial began last month.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant,” Hernandez told reporters outside the court house at the time. “Had I known I was pregnant, I would have awaited the baby with pride and joy.” Her defense team has said that her pregnancy was the result of a rape.
In April 2016, Hernandez was rushed to a local emergency room in her hometown of El Carmen, roughly 40 kilometers east of the capital, by her mother and a neighbor. She had been found on the floor of her bathroom drenched in blood and she was diagnosed with hypovolemic shock.
Doctors who examined her saw signs of a delivery, but no baby. They reported her to the authorities, her defense team told CNN. When local officials arrived at her home five hours later, they found the newborn dead in a septic tank.
A year later, Hernandez was put on trial and convicted to 30 years in prison for killing the child. Prosecutors at the time claimed she had induced an abortion and left the baby for dead.
Abortion illegal under any circumstance
Abortion is illegal in El Salvador under any circumstance, including when the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother or in cases of rape. Depending on the charge, Salvadoran women who are suspected of having an abortion or an induced miscarriage can face serious charges including aggravated homicide, with sentences ranging from two years in prison to up to 50 years, according to Amnesty International.
Hernandez’s will be the first abortion case to be tried since Nayib Bukele became president in June. During a campaign event last October at a local university in San Salvador, Bukele said he was anti-abortion but that he didn’t agree with convicting poor women who suffer miscarriages.
“If a poor woman suffers a miscarriage, she’s immediately suspected of having had an abortion,” Bukele said. “That’s where the issue of social inequality comes into play.” He has not made any statements regarding Hernandez’s case.
Most of the women who have faced criminal charges for abortions in El Salvador come from poor rural backgrounds, and many suffered miscarriages or had obstetric complications because they weren’t able to get regular check-ups due to lack of resources, according to Morena Herrera, one of the leaders of the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador.
She and her organization have been at the forefront of pushing for reform to the country’s abortion bill. “We want Evelyn to go free,” Herrera told CNN. “But we know the realities of what the prosecution is asking for and know that, if convicted, she could face 30-50 years in prison.”
In 2017, the UN rights office urged El Salvador to change its “draconian” abortion laws, saying abortion should not be a crime when the pregnancy puts the mother at risk or in cases of rape or human trafficking.
Defense team feeling “positive”
Hernandez’s defense team told CNN that they are feeling “positive” ahead of Thursday’s trial.
Elizabeth Deras, one of Hernandez’s lawyers, said some of the witnesses who testified last month presented evidence that suggested that the baby died from complications during the delivery, implying that it was not the fault of Hernandez.
“We’re feeling positive as her defense team because some of the prosecution’s witnesses revealed details that are important for our case,” Deras told CNN. “The doctor who performed the autopsy on the child said the cause of death was aspiration pneumonia and that meconium was discovered inside the baby’s stomach.”
Hernandez has already served 33 months of her initial 30-year sentence. She was freed last February after her team presented an appeal before the Supreme Court and requested her retrial.
If convicted, it’s not clear if she will resume her original sentence or receive a new conviction from the judge.
Herrera said she and others supporting Hernandez’s case will gather outside the courthouse with protest signs demanding her freedom.