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After 18-year-old Evelyn's baby died during birth, she was jailed for murder for 30 years.

Content warning: This post details sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers. 

A young rape victim who was sentenced to 30 years jail after giving birth to a stillborn baby has just been cleared of all charges. It’s a victory for Evelyn Hernandez, and for women across El Salvador.

On April 6, 2016, Hernandez, then an 1pn8-year-old high school student, began suffering severe stomach pains. She went to the outside toilet near her rural home, and there, alone and in agony, she slipped into unconsciousness. Her mother discovered her, drenched in blood, and took her to hospital.

Doctors found that she had just given birth. She had lost so much blood and bodily fluid that her blood pressure had suffered a dramatic drop.

Hernandez didn’t know she had been pregnant, even though she had been in her third trimester. She had been repeatedly raped by a gang member, but because she was still experiencing occasional bleeding, she thought she’d been having her period.

When she was in the toilet, suffering severe stomach pains, she didn’t hear the cry of a baby and didn’t realise she was giving birth.

“If I’d known I was pregnant I would have awaited the baby with pride and joy,” she later told reporters.

The hospital notified the local police, who immediately searched Hernandez’s home and found the body of her baby in the toilet’s septic tank. She was arrested on suspicion of procuring an abortion, which is a crime in El Salvador.

WATCH: Is abortion legal in Australia? Post continues after video.

She spent a week handcuffed to a hospital bed while being treated for a urinary tract infection and severe anaemia.

In July 2017, Hernandez went on trial. Because no evidence had been found that she had tried to procure an abortion, the charge was changed to aggravated homicide. The prosecution claimed that Hernandez had hidden her pregnancy, failed to seek medical care because she didn’t want the baby, and then, after the birth, had thrown him into the toilet to kill him.

An autopsy showed that Hernandez’s baby boy had died of aspiration pneumonia.

Meconium, or faecal matter, had been found in his lungs and stomach. But despite the medical evidence, the judge believed the prosecution’s claims. She found Hernandez guilty of aggravated homicide and suggested her mother could also be criminally responsible. She sentenced Hernandez to 30 years’ jail.

“The judge’s verdict doesn’t reflect the evidence presented in court,” Hernandez’s lawyer Dennis Munoz said afterwards. “It’s a decision based on morality, not the law or justice.”

After Hernandez had spent almost three years in jail, the Supreme Court finally heard her appeal in February this year. The court ordered a retrial, and Hernandez was released, walking out to a crowd of activists chanting, “Evelyn, you are not alone!”

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The retrial began last month. Hernandez, now studying to be a nurse, once again stated her innocence.

“My goals are to keep studying, and I only ask the prosecution to think things through because I am really innocent,” she said in court. “Also, to the judge, I know that he will do justice. God willing, all will end well.”

The prosecution lawyers called for Hernandez’s sentence to be increased to 40 years, claiming she should have sought medical care during the pregnancy or gone to hospital when she was in labour.

But the court found that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her. She was free.

“Thank God, justice was served,” Hernandez told reporters following the ruling.

Evelyn Hernandez at Integral Center for Justice, in Ciudad Delgado, El Salvador. Image: AAP.

“I thank all of you who have supported me and thank everyone from around the world who has shown support.

“It was tough to be locked up, especially when I was innocent. There are others who are still locked up and I hope they are freed soon.”

El Salvador is one of just a handful of countries around the world where abortion is banned in all circumstances. Exceptions used to be made in cases of rape or where the mother’s health was at risk, but a conservative government got rid of those exceptions in 1998.

Doctors are legally obliged to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy, or face long prison sentences themselves. That’s led to some women being jailed following miscarriages, stillbirths or other medical emergencies.

Morena Herrera from the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion says Hernandez’s acquittal is “a sign of hope for all women who remain in jail for crimes they did not commit for health problems that should never have been brought to court”.

“No woman should go through the ordeal that Evelyn did,” Herrera adds.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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