PT couple: Close call in Guatemala

Charlie Bermant cybermant@gmail.com
Posted 2/28/17

A Port Townsend couple is now safe in Mexico after a close call with Guatemalan authorities that nearly landed them in jail.

“We are safe, but just barely,” Merilee Nyland Evans wrote in an …

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PT couple: Close call in Guatemala

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A Port Townsend couple is now safe in Mexico after a close call with Guatemalan authorities that nearly landed them in jail.

“We are safe, but just barely,” Merilee Nyland Evans wrote in an email to The Leader on Monday. “The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said we were not safe and needed to leave and there was nothing they could do to protect us.”

Women on Waves, a Dutch nonprofit organization, recruited Nyland Evans and husband Daniel Evans as crew members on the 40-foot sailboat Adelaide. The organization’s mission is to offer medical abortions, contraceptive advice and reproductive counseling to women who live in countries where abortion is prohibited.

Upon the ship’s arrival in Guatemala on Feb. 24, the crew was not allowed to provide its intended services, beginning four days of conflict between the government, the courts and the Women on Waves organization, the couple said.

Evans, 44, is a former schooner Adventuress captain and the “race boss” of the Northwest Maritime Center’s Race to Alaska. Nyland Evans, 32, works as a caregiver in Port Townsend. (Meloceane, the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, is being cared for by a family friend.)

INSPIRED TO VOLUNTEER

“I really wanted to convey my concern for women’s health and safety here in Guatemala and women’s rights around the world,” Nyland Evans said of her decision to volunteer. “Women should not be denied the right to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Women should not be imprisoned for ending a pregnancy. All women should be able to access a legal, safe abortion.”

Nyland Evans said she was inspired to participate after watching

“Vessel,” a documentary about Women on Waves that was shown at the 2016 Port Townsend Film Festival.

Women on Waves, founded in 1999, strives to provide reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws. The boat docks in a target country, then posts messages about the availability of these services. Interested women are given a number to call, then board the ship and travel into international waters, where the services are provided by two medical doctors.

During its history, the organization has met with opposition from local authorities, facing bans, arrests and blockades, according to its website.

According to a blog posted by the organization, on Feb. 22, the boat arrived in the Marina Pez Vela harbor, San Juan, where it acquired all necessary licenses and permits for the boat and crew. The Women on Waves crew believed that everything was in order until the next day, when members were heading to a scheduled press conference at a dockside restaurant and were denied access.

The assembled press still covered the event, publishing stories about the ship and its detention by the authorities.

In the meantime, about 60 women had called the hotline expressing interest in the group’s services, officials told the media.

The crew was confined to the ship and was not allowed to disembark, aside from using restroom facilities in the port, the blog said.

INTERNATIONAL WATERS

Prior to the group’s arrival, Women on Waves had researched Guatemalan law and determined that while abortion is illegal in the country except when the mother’s life is in danger, the advertising of the services to be performed in international waters was legal.

The actions of the authorities was a surprise, according to Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts.

“We had the law on our side,” she said. “There was nothing to stop [women] from getting on board and going out to sea for an abortion.”

The court handed down an expulsion order on Feb. 24, and the group was given 10 days to respond. Requesting an expeditious ruling, it filed an appeal, but was told that the appeal papers were lost.

They filed another motion Feb. 25 for temporary legal protection, which was denied six hours later without a hearing, Gomperts said.

At that point, the organization decided that it could no longer guarantee the crew’s protection and prepared to leave, according to Gomperts.

On Feb. 26, the boat left the harbor with a military escort.

Women on Waves observed the action in order to verify the safe passage into international waters.

“This is not a country that follows the rule of law,” Gomperts said.

While waiting for the court decision, the Evanses began to fear for their safety.

“The courts were moving along with our cases slower than our lawyers had ever seen and became suspect that this was not accidental,” Nyland Evans wrote.

“As it turns out, the military petitions were moving along quite quickly. This could have allowed for our sudden, unannounced arrest. Hearing this, at about 2 p.m. on Saturday [Feb. 25], we decided we had to leave, and fast. We could no longer wait to see how the court decided, knowing that the wrong decision would have us trespassing on military property, which would carry very serious penalties.”

Nyland Evans wrote that the couple is currently maintaining a low profile, “laying low and staying quiet until our flight.

“We just fled a country under fear of political prosecution,” she wrote. “The campaign had such huge and wide coverage across all of Central America that we are afraid of negative consequences if someone should find out that we were involved.”

The couple expects to return to Port Townsend on March 3.

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