Press Release

IACHR Brings El Salvador Case before IA Court

October 10, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - On July 29, 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court) over case 13.069, Manuela and family, concerning El Salvador.

The case refers to a series of violations in criminal proceedings that culminated in a conviction for the crime of aggravated murder in the context of El Salvador’s well-known criminalization of abortion. The IACHR found that the state violated the right to personal liberty by illegally arresting the victim, who was detained on February 28, 2008, on the grounds of having been caught in flagrante delicto without having met the requirements for this, given that at the time of her arrest she was receiving medical assistance at the National Hospital of San Francisco de Gotera.

Likewise, the IACHR concluded that the state violated the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty, the principle of the presumption of innocence, and the right to judicial protection as the decision to take her into pretrial detention was made based on the seriousness of the crime and by applying a legal provision that does not allow for pretrial detention to replace other precautionary measures for the crime of aggravated murder.

Furthermore, the IACHR established that the right to defense and judicial protection had been violated, taking into account the fact that the victim did not have a defense attorney during the preliminary proceedings on February 28, 2008, and also that there were shortcomings to the legal defense services she was provided with, including a serious shortcoming, namely that no appeal was filed against the ruling that sentenced the victim to 30 years in prison.

The IACHR also concluded that El Salvador had violated the right to appeal the ruling, since at the time of events there was no legal remedy that would allow for a full review of a criminal conviction, as all that was available was a cassation appeal for the failure to observe a legal precept or the erroneous application of this.

The IACHR also found that the state violated the rights to privacy and the right to healthcare, given that its professional secrecy regulations did not comply with the legal requirements for imposing a restriction, since they did not clearly set out the cases in which exceptions should be made and those in which the treating physician is obliged to report the patient. Furthermore, certain information provided to the authorities was unrelated to the purposes of the duty to report, such as information on the victim’s sexual history.

The IACHR also concluded that the state violated the right to life, the right to health, judicial guarantees, and the right to judicial protection, given that the victim did not receive a comprehensive medical diagnosis when she was deprived of her freedom, nor did she receive appropriate, timely medical treatment, which would have extended her life. Instead, Manuela died after suffering an illness that she had begun to exhibit symptoms of in 2007. Furthermore, the victim’s death in state custody was not clarified through an appropriate investigation.

Finally, the IACHR determined that the state was internationally responsible for the violation of the duty to provide reasons for its decisions, the presumption of innocence, and the principle of equality and nondiscrimination, given the fact that a series of stereotypes were invoked throughout the criminal proceedings which led to certain lines of investigation being closed and prevented an exhaustive analysis of the evidence. Certain gender stereotypes were also at play in the conviction, which led the court to fail to assess some of the evidence exhaustively and impacted the determination of criminal responsibility.

The IACHR recommended that the state take the following reparation measures:

  1. Provide comprehensive tangible and intangible redress for the human rights violations set out in the Merits Report. Take measures to provide economic compensation and redress for nonpecuniary damages. In view of Manuela’s death, these measures should be implemented in favor of her immediate family.
  2. Investigate into the administrative, disciplinary, or other forms of responsibility that derive from the human rights violations set out in the Merits Report.
  3. Provide the mechanisms necessary to prevent repetitions of the violations set out in the report. Specifically: (i) strengthen the public defense system to ensure it is effective, particularly in cases in which there is a possibility of severe penalties being imposed, including disciplinary accountability mechanisms for actions or omissions that constitute gross negligence; ii) ensure that both the regulations and actual practice enable people who are convicted of a criminal offence to access to a legal remedy before a higher authority such that their conviction can be fully reviewed; iii) guarantee that the concept of flagrante delicto is applied in accordance with the standards set out in the Merits Report; iv) ensure that use of pretrial detention conforms to the standards described in the Merits Report in both the legislation and in practice; (v) provide appropriate training for public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and other judicial officials aimed at eliminating the use of discriminatory stereotypes regarding the role of women, taking into account the negative impact these have on criminal investigations and on the assessment of evidence and criminal responsibility in judicial decisions; vi) review and correct discriminatory institutional practices in the spheres of criminal law and healthcare, in the terms set out in the report; vii) establish local outreach mechanisms to inform women, particularly those living in poverty, about their sexual and reproductive health rights; and viii) guarantee the legal certainty of medical professional secrecy through appropriate regulations that are the outcome of due consideration of the rights and interests at stake, and create a protocol for the protection of this secrecy by medical personnel in cases that relate to obstetric emergencies, miscarriages, or abortions and that comply with international standards and include detailed exceptions.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 255/19