It is mid-day on a warm weekend and the inmates of this transit detention center in the Ecuadorian capital Quito are milling around friends and relatives come to see them. A salsa dance number blares loudly topping up the roar of a football match on several TV screens in the background.
The place is packed, with little room to stand. Over 1200 prisoners live in a space meant for just 300, and now each of them has a visitor or more to boot. It is exactly as you would imagine a Latin American/Third World prison to be, crowded, loud, filthy, menacing.
Suddenly a hand appears from within the crowd, and a voice ‘Hello, I am Victor Hugo’. A face follows, of a man in his mid-forties, with gentle, earnest eyes. According to the Ecuadorian government this Professor of Sociology at the Central University of Quito is the leader of a ‘terrorist’ gang, carrying out acts of ‘sabotage’ against the state. I have no hesitation shaking hands with him, just over 200 years ago he could have been the real Victor Hugo himself.
Victor and the nine other activists were arrested by a special police squad as they gathered at a hall in a Quito suburb nine months ago to discuss the “Peoples March for Water, Life and Dignity’ that was about to begin in a few days. The mobilisation, from 8-22 March saw thousands of indigenous people and workers from the Amazonian south of Ecuador to the highlands of Quito rally against President Rafael Correa’s policies of allowing large scale mining in eco-sensitive zones and for crushing trade union activism.
“ Our meeting had hardly begun when the police barged in without a search warrant and kept us hostage for seven hours. They didn’t have any case against us so they used the time to cook up the charges”, remembers Victor sitting on his tiny bunker bed, that also serves as workplace, library and meeting room all in one.
Soon after their arrest the detainees were subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, handcuffed and dragged out of the room to a staircase where they were made to kneel for four hours. Fadua Tapia, a 18 year old student activist and one of three women who were arrested, was violently pushed to the ground and handcuffed despite the fact that she was already a few months pregnant. Javier Estupiñan , an Afro-Ecuadorian engineer among those arrested, lost a tooth as the police banged his head against the wall.
The ‘incriminating’ evidence collected by the police from the site of the arrest included the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, a government official newspaper "The Citizen", various books and pamphlets on philosophy of law, a government document titled "Defending Democracy", among others. Videos like ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘The Exorcist’ and some Che Guevara T-Shirts were also later presented in court as evidence of ‘terrorist’ intentions of the ten accused activists. There were no independent witnesses called in to verify the record of materials collected from the detainees.
When the ten activists were finally produced before a judge, the State Prosecutor Diana Fernandez, accused them vaguely of ‘various’ crimes against the state without specifying exact charges. The prosecution insinuated without presenting proof that the ten arrested activists were somehow linked with the ‘Popular Combatants Group’, a shadowy extreme left group blamed for a few bomb blasts in Ecuador last year.
“They don’t have any evidence at all to prove what they are accusing us of so the plan is to keep the trial going on for as long as possible” says Victor, who sees the arrests as part of a larger persecution of groups and activists who are further to the left of Rafael Correa, a social democrat politician.
When Correa came to power in 2006 activists like Victor and many others on the left supported him openly as he was seen as an alternative to the series of pro-US Presidents that Ecuador had suffered since the eighties. Successive regimes, under IMF tutelage, had reduced the Ecuadorian economy to rubble and created a wave of popular discontent against neo-liberal economic policies.
Correa was elected on the promise of greater public spending on welfare and finding solutions to the problems of the indigenous population. Some of the promises were kept, like increased spending for health and education and populist income support schemes for the poor. A US base operating in Ecuador was ousted and the government took on US multinational Chevron for polluting the Amazon forest during oil extraction in the seventies and eighties.
The Correa regime’s first term also saw the adoption of the new Ecuadorian Constitution, which enshrines among other things the rights of Mother Earth, a legal recognition of the concerns of indigenous people for protecting the environment. Even his critics acknowledge positive changes that have happened during the last six years of his reign but point out that many of these are cosmetic and hide the real problems of Ecuadorian economy and society.
“Rafael Correa has succeeded only in cleverly hiding the country’s poor without solving the problem of poverty”, says Victor who says there has been no meaningful reform of the skewed land ownership in the country or improvement in rights of the rural and urban poor.
While poverty rates, since Correa came to power, has fallen from 38.5 percent to 28.6 percent Victor points out that part of this is due to a dole of USD35 given to around 1.23 million poor Ecuadorians every month, out of a total population of 14 million. The dole he says has become an instrument of the government to create a pool of loyal voters while avoiding long-term restructuring of the economy to actually eliminate poverty.
The real reason for conflict with leftwing opponents for Correa however has been his government’s decision to allow large-scale mining and oil exploration in the highly eco-sensitive areas of Ecuador’s Amazon basin. One of the sparks for the anti-government rally in March this year for example was the signing of a contract with Ecuacorriente (ECSA), a Chinese owned multinational, to extract copper and gold through a highly polluting open cast mining process in the Cordillera del Condor, the country’s ecologically richest zone.
Critics of the Correa regime point out that while the IMF no longer plays a pivotal role in guiding economic policies and priorities as it used to in the past and now the same functions have been handed over to powerful private economic entities like mining and oil companies.
“We all had supported Correa before he got elected but once he came to power he has sided with the moneyed elite” says Pablo Castro a former student leader and one of those arrested along with Victor. (As I listen to him Pablo’s wife and six month old son arrive with a cake and some sweets to celebrate his birthday in prison. In a few days he will turn 24.)
Surprisingly for a government supposed to be against the US led ‘War on Terror’ the Correa regime has liberally used charges of ‘terrorism’ against its own opponents. According to reports by human rights organizations and the Judicial Ombudsman of Ecuador, there are close to 200 people in the country being prosecuted on ‘terrorism’ related charges, though the government has said several times there are no terrorist organizations on Ecuadorian soil!
“The criminal law on terrorism in Ecuador, is very general and broad, which means anyone can be easily detained for a long time”, says one of the lawyers representing Hugo and the nine other activists. The lawyer, who did not want to be named, says what is disturbing is that the government is willing to put intense pressure on the judiciary to force them into giving the judgments it wants and there is today a climate of fear within the judicial system. Several judges, in recent years, have been themselves prosecuted, sacked from their jobs or even forced into exile due to their ‘inconvenient’ judgments.
The media too is wary of going against the Correa government too much after a spate of law suits against leading journalists in recent times resulting in heavy fines and also prison sentences for several of them. The fact that most of the activists being persecuted by Correa happen to be further to the left politically also means there is very little support for their cause in the mainstream media anyway.
For Victor Hugo and his fellow activists in prison the nine months of incarceration has already meant severe damage in terms of jobs, reputation and family ties. Several of these activists have also lost their jobs, separated from their families and friends or in the case of student activists lost educational opportunities.
“My son was a dentist and always treating the poor people in our town free of cost. He was also supporting our family to pay our monthly bills but now all that is lost”, says Rosa Romero Alvarez, mother of Royce Gomez, one of the activists from Guayaquil currently in prison.
The families of the activists have now turned to human rights organizations in the Latin American region and are looking for international support to pressurize the Correa government to release their relatives.
Ironically Ecuador has won praise from liberals around the world for granting refuge at its embassy in London to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, to help escape possible abduction by the US government. It is time for the international supporters of Rafael Correa to demand that his government stop imitating the US government and allow the spirit of freedom of speech represented by Wikileaks to flourish within Ecuador’s own borders too.
Postscript: Since 7th December, the ten Ecuadorian activists in prison have been on hunger strike demanding justice and a speedy trial. On 10th December, the International Human Rights Day, they were supposed to be brought before a court in Quito but the hearing never happened as one of the judges mysteriously fell ill just that day. The punishment by trial of Ecuador’s dissidents it seems is destined to continue for some more time.
Satya Sagar is a journalist, video maker and public health activist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]