Julian Assange may not have had many options when he was considering where to seek asylum, but still, Ecuador is a far from obvious choice. He faces extradition to Sweden for questioning over alleged sex crimes after Britain’s top court said last week that it had rejected a legal request to reconsider his case.
Assange was on bail and living with friends before his extradition. By choosing Ecuador, he has alighted in a country that is clearly in accord with his political views, not closely aligned with the United States and, he will hope, beyond the reach of the European arrest-warrant system.
Assange interviewed the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, on the Russia Today TV channel last month. During their exchange, the Australian explained that he had been under house arrest in England for 500 days and elicited sympathy from the left-wing populist leader.
But Ecuador, a country with a tenuous respect for international human rights law, is a counterintuitive refuge for the free-speech and transparency crusader.
Ecuador’s justice system and record on free speech have been called into question by Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International.
Poorest record of free speech
“It is ironic that you have a journalist, or an activist, seeking political asylum from a government that has – after Cuba – the poorest record of free speech in the region and the practice of persecuting local journalists when the government is upset by their opinions or their research,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
He pointed out that in April 2011 Ecuador expelled the US ambassador, Heather Hodges, over diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks alleging widespread corruption in the Ecuadorian police. “Maybe Assange feels President Correa owes something to him.”
Still, the fact remains that free-speech watchdogs are quick to tick off a laundry list of Ecuador’s breaches. “In a referendum held in May 2011, President Rafael Correa obtained a popular mandate for constitutional reforms that could significantly increase government powers to constrain the media and influence the appointment and dismissal of judges,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its 2011 Ecuador report.
“Those involved in protests in which there are outbreaks of violence may be prosecuted on inflated and inappropriate terrorism charges. Criminal defamation laws that restrict freedom of expression remain in force and Correa has used them repeatedly against his critics.”
The report also documented the misuse of anti-terror laws in dealing with peaceful social protests, undue political influence in the judiciary and tighter regulation around the operation of domestic and international non-governmental organisations within Ecuador’s borders.
Earlier this year, Correa said he would pardon several news managers and journalists he had sued for libel, “but his actions in the cases have done grave damage to free expression in his country”, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On February 16 Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against El Universo newspaper that sentenced its three directors and opinion editor to three years each in prison and a total of $40-million in damages. The complaint stemmed from an opinion column from a year before that insinuated the president could be charged with crimes against humanity for his actions during a police uprising in 2010. Correa did ultimately pardon the journalists in a televised address, but not without adding that “there is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten”, which many took as a warning.
“The Committee to Protect Journalists’ research shows that Correa’s administration has led Ecuador into an era of repression by systematically filing defamation lawsuits and smearing critics,” it wrote in a report.
Indeed, as recently as this month, police shut down six radio broadcasters and two TV stations in two weeks. “The closure was officially in response to the station’s arrears in the payment of its licence fees,” said Reporters Without Borders.
“The same reason was given in the cases of four of seven other media outlets closed down in the past fortnight. Representatives of the stations concerned believe, however, that the real reasons were political.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012