REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

The fight for Sara Rogel, the Salvadoran woman sentenced to 30 years in jail after having a miscarriage

A decade on, a court has ordered her release, but because the public prosecution will appeal the ruling, she still remains behind bars

International Day of Action for Women's Health in San Salvador on May 28.
International Day of Action for Women's Health in San Salvador on May 28.JOSE CABEZAS / Reuters

The parents of Sara Rogel were waiting excitedly for the release of their daughter, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after having an accident at home in El Salvador that caused her to have a miscarriage. She was found guilty of aggravated murder when she was 20 years old, and has been in prison for the past 10 years. But on Monday a judge in Cojutepeque ordered Rogel’s release on the grounds that she had served most of her sentence and “did not represent a danger to society.” But the joy over the news did not last long – the public prosecutor soon announced it would appeal the decision. “We have been waiting 10 years, 10 years without her,” said Ángel Rogel, as he stood without protesters in support of his daughter outside the court.

Sara Rogel was born in Santa Cruz Analquito, a small municipality in the department of Cuscatlán that is home to fewer than 3,000 people. In October 2012, she slipped as she was washing clothes and the accident caused her to lose her unborn child. “It was a pregnancy in the late stages. It was a wanted child,” explained Morena Herrera, the president of the Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion. “Because of the accident, she lost the baby and suffered severe hemorrhaging that meant she had to be taken to the hospital. There, they accused her of having an abortion and later they changed the type of crime and sentenced her to 30 years in prison for aggravated murder.” The autopsy showed that the fetus had suffered head trauma, which led the judge to determine that it was an intentional blow.

We have been waiting 10 years, 10 years without her
Ángel Rogel, Sara Rogel’s father

Feminist groups and human rights advocates have been fighting the courts for Rogel’s release for a decade in El Salvador, which has one of the strictest Criminal Codes with respect to abortion. In addition to Rogel, 18 women have been sentenced for crimes relating to obstetric emergencies, and in 2019, 181 were accused in cases concerning abortion. “More than 10 women have been accused between 2020 and 2021 so far, but we have stopped them from being sentenced,” said Herrera.

The Salvadoran public prosecutor has five days to appeal the court’s decision to release Rogel, whose legal team then has another five days to respond to the appeal. “The process could again go to the highest court and could last another month. [Rogel] could have been released today. We were preparing a party to celebrate her freedom,” said Herrera. “We are going to pressure the public prosecutor because it does make sense for them to appeal.”

El Salvador is one of the countries targeted by international organizations over its hardline anti-abortion laws. A group of experts from the United Nations called on the country’s controversial president, Nayib Bukele, to free three women who were imprisoned after suffering obstetric emergencies that led to miscarriages. The UN argued that the jailing of these women was “arbitrary detention,” and called on Salvadoran authorities to compensate them for the damage caused and to order an exhaustive investigation to punish those responsible. One of these women was Evelyn Hernández, who was arrested in 2016 for aggravated murder after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Hernández, who had been raped by a gang member, did not even know she was pregnant. Like Rogel, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was acquitted last year after several years of international pressure.

In addition to Rogel, 18 women have been sentenced for crimes relating to obstetric emergencies

In early May, women’s groups in Salvador suffered a major setback when the Legislative Assembly, which is controlled by President Bukele, shelved a 2016 proposed reform to the Criminal Code, that argued for abortion to be decriminalized in cases of rape, where the life of the mother is at risk, or when the fetus has no chance of surviving outside of the uterus.

But despite the setback, feminist organizations are continuing to pressure the Salvadoran government to reform the country’s draconian Criminal Code. “We are hopeful,” said Herrera. “On Friday we are going to present letters to deputies so that they establish a roundtable to restart negotiation on the law initiatives. What’s more, we have two cases open in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”

Given the recent upset, the court’s decision on Monday to grant Rogel’s release offered hope to the groups that are fighting for women’s rights in the highly conservative country. The ruling should have seen Rogel freed, but she remains in prison. The party organized for her didn’t go ahead on Monday, nor were her parents able to bring their daughter back home. “The ruling offers a lot of hope, but the lack of will from the representation in the public prosecution has stopped it from being followed,” explained Herrera.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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