MANAGUA, Jun 21 (IPS) - After a series of hunger strikes and vigils, Fátima Hernández had managed to become an exception, as one of the few rape victims in Nicaragua to obtain justice. But now her fight has started all over again and the hope that her case offered to others might become a mirage.
On Monday, she began a new hunger strike outside the Supreme Court building.
Hernández's plight began on the night of Jul. 25, 2009, when the now former civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior was raped by her then colleague in the Department of Immigration, Farinton Reyes Larios, according to a guilty verdict handed down 11 months later, in which he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
But now there is a growing possibility that Reyes Larios will be released from prison, or that his sentence could be drastically reduced, in a country where violence against women is on the rise, along with the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, according to different sources.
What turned Hernández's case into a symbol was the determination of the 23-year-old woman to press for punishment of her rapist, even though he is the son of a famous former track and field athlete, Xiomara Larios.
Both the mother and the son have ties to the governing left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and are reportedly well-connected in circles of power, which added to the fact that Hernández was backed by mainly anti-government women's movements made the case political.
Hernández held four different hunger strikes for a total of 25 days, as well as vigils outside the Supreme Court and other public institutions, and made visits to the media and human rights groups, to demand justice and keep her case from falling into oblivion.
"Fátima's strength, in the midst of a society that tends to hush up sexual abuse, awakened the solidarity and support of human rights groups and organisations that defend women's rights," said Gonzalo Carrión, legal director of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH).
CENIDH backed Hernández in her lawsuit until a court in the capital handed down an eight-year sentence for aggravated rape in June 2010.
But in December 2010, the Managua appeals court reduced the sentence to six years, and the public prosecutor's office asked the Supreme Court to review the original trial, citing technicalities.
Nicaragua's penal code establishes sentences of eight to 12 years for rape.
On Jun. 6, the case took a new turn when one of the chambers of the Supreme Court held a hearing to determine whether Reyes should complete the six-year sentence, serve only four years, or be set free under the benefit of "reasonable doubt" due to the alleged anomalies in the trial.
Prosecutor Julio Montenegro and Reyes' defence lawyers argued in the hearing that he should be released from prison. The defendant's attorneys maintain that there is no evidence that he raped Hernández.
The Supreme Court has stated that no date has been set for its decision. But Hernández feels certain that Reyes will be set free because of the political influence of the FSLN. Sources at the Supreme Court told IPS that the 16 magistrates, four of whom are women, are heavily divided over the case.
The young woman told IPS that if the ruling is unfavourable, she will continue fighting to demand justice, not just for herself but for all Nicaraguan women who are victims of sexual violence, because "women victims of sexual attacks deserve justice, not impunity." She began a new hunger strike Monday to demand that the Supreme Court uphold the original eight-year sentence.
Hernández is now pressing for justice with the assistance of the Asociación de Mujeres Forjadoras "El Pensamiento", a group of women volunteers that emerged in 2010 to publicly support legal action brought by victims of gender violence.
There were 89 murders of women in this Central American country of 5.8 million people in 2010, up from 36 in 2006. Nearly all of the killings were "femicides" – a term coined for misogynist or gender-motivated murders of women.
In the first five months of this year, there were 40 women victims of "sexist" violence, and the numbers of sex crimes has shot up, according to police reports.
The Network of Women against Violence has counted 729 women killed over the past 10 years due to gender-related reasons, mainly at the hands of men close to them like their partners, fathers, brothers or friends.
María Elena Domínguez, coordinator of the Network, told IPS that more than 75 percent of the murders and attacks go unsolved.
More than 100 organisations demanded that the single-chamber legislature urgently pass a comprehensive bill on violence against women, which would force the state to assume greater responsibility for the defence of women victims and stiffen the penalties for perpetrators.
According to the Network, in the 89 murders of women in 2010, 36 of the murderers are fugitives from justice, 34 are in prison awaiting trial, eight have been sentenced, five committed suicide after killing their partners, and three are free as a result of "influence peddling".
In 2010, of the 3,856 serious crime reported by the women's and children's police units, 78 percent were sexual crimes.
CENIDH reported that of the total number of complaints received by these specialised police units last year, 34,763 involved different kinds of sexual aggression, 3,128 more than in 2009.
Of the total number of complaints in 2010, 21,051 were classified as criminal offences, but only 14,188 went to trial, and in most of the cases it was the women victims themselves who had to cover the legal costs, CENIDH complained.
Prosecutor Odette Leytón, head of the gender unit in the office of the public prosecutor, acknowledged the rise in the number of cases of violence against women, but questioned the figures on impunity provided by women's and human rights groups.
Leytón told IPS that legal action has been taken in 98 percent of the cases involving the murder of a woman, and that effective results have been achieved in 80 percent.