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Salvadoran Woman Freed After 15 Years in Jail for Abortion Crimes

Maira Veronica Figueroa (C), who was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for charges of abortion, is released from jail after the Supreme Court of El Salvador commuted her sentence, in IIopango, El Salvador, March 13, 2018.

A Salvadoran woman who said she suffered a stillbirth - but was jailed for nearly 15 years for murdering her child - was freed on Tuesday after authorities reduced her sentence.

Maira Veronica Figueroa's release puts the spotlight on El Salvador's total ban on abortion as the Central American nation faces mounting international pressure to overturn its strict law and release other women jailed for abortion-related crimes.

Figueroa, 34, was handed a 30-year prison sentence in 2003 for aggravated murder after she was convicted of intentionally inducing an abortion, which is a crime under any circumstances in El Salvador.

On Tuesday morning, Figueroa was greeted by cheering crowds when she walked out of the overcrowded Ilopango women's prison in the capital San Salvador, with a plastic bag of belongings.

"I'm going to start again and get back the time lost," the government prison quoted her as saying on Twitter.

Figueroa, a domestic worker, says she experienced pregnancy complications and had a late-term miscarriage.

"It is inconceivable that Maira spent almost 15 years in prison for experiencing a pregnancy complication," said Nancy Northup, head of the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which campaigned for Figueroa to be freed.

"While we celebrate Maira's release today, we condemn the government of El Salvador for not acknowledging the lack of due process and failing to recognize her innocence," she said in a statement.

"Her conviction has not been overturned and she continues to be guilty in the eyes of the law."

27 women remain jailed

According to the rights group and the local Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion (CFDA), which also helped campaign for Figueroa's release, at least another 27 women are in prison under the country's abortion law.

Rights groups say they were accused of inducing abortions, and wrongfully jailed for murder, when instead they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications.

Abortion has been outlawed in the Catholic-majority nation since 1997 even in cases of rape, incest, when the woman's life is in danger or the fetus is deformed. Five other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean also have an outright ban.

Figueroa's release follows that of Teodora Vasquez, who was freed in February after spending more than a decade behind bars for an abortion-related crime.

In 2016, the country's ruling party introduced a bill to allow abortion in cases of rape or a risky pregnancy, but no date has been set for a vote, and it will likely face tough opposition from the Catholic Church and evangelical groups.

In November, the United Nations urged El Salvador to issue a moratorium on applying its abortion law, and asked authorities to review all such cases in which women had been jailed.

"El Salvador must prioritize abortion law reform and release the remaining women wrongfully behind bars," Northup said.