Misuse of judicial system risks setting Ecuador on "course of continued social conflict"
(Washington, D.C.) — Amnesty International today accused Ecuador's authorities of using the country's judicial system to clamp down on indigenous and campesino leaders, deliberately attempting to prevent them from protesting against projects that will affect their environment and lands.
In a new report, So that no one can demand anything: Criminalizing the right to protest in Ecuador? the human rights organization explores the cases of 24 leaders targeted with what appear to be unfounded charges, arbitrary arrests and strict bail conditions simply for campaigning against laws and policies on the use of natural resources.
"The fact that 24 leaders faced questionable charges in an 18-month period demonstrates a worrying pattern, said Tamaryn Nelson, Ecuador researcher at Amnesty International. "These charges are having a chilling effect on entire communities, which now think twice before voicing legitimate concerns against measures that affect them."
The leaders have faced a total of 16 charges of terrorism, 11 charges of sabotage, six charges of blocking roads, and one charge of homicide – all of which are related to protests in 2009 and 2010. Despite many charges and arrests having been dismissed as baseless by judges, 11 of the 24 were still under investigation, involved in court proceedings or subject to bail restrictions, at the time of writing.
Many were arrested during police attempts to disperse protesters. Others have lived for years under the threat of arrest because warrants were issued but not acted upon. In some cases, bail conditions have been imposed that require leaders to present themselves to officials, usually every seven or 15 days, and forbidding overseas travel.
Ecuador is the fifth largest producer of crude oil in Latin America, and these projects have negatively impacted human rights and resulted in conflicts with local communities. The government has recently announced its intention to bring large-scale mining to Ecuador, which has led to more conflict with local communities.
"Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue and proper consultation with the affected communities, authorities are using any tool in the box to discourage people from voicing their disapproval," added Nelson. "The government's policy of continuing to push through changes without adequate consultation risks setting Ecuador on a course of continued social conflict."
In June 2010, Indigenous leaders Marlon Santi and Delfin Tenesaca were accused of terrorism after participating in a protest in the context of the "Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America" and an investigation was opened. According to reports, the only evidence against the activists are a pair of missing handcuffs that a police officer reported he had lost. At the time of writing, both had been under investigation on charges of "terrorism" for almost two years.
Amnesty International recognizes that Ecuador has an obligation to maintain public order and investigate any possible crimes that take place during protests. All too often, however, Indigenous and campesino leaders are subject to unfounded investigations and judicial proceedings, raising the question whether these are politically motivated acts.
Ecuador has an obligation to consult adequately with affected communities before adopting any measure that would affect their human rights. Moreover, where there are significant developments about projects that affect the livelihood of Indigenous Peoples, the state must ensure their right to free, prior and informed consent.
Amnesty International calls on authorities in Ecuador to ensure that any potential laws, policies and measures that affect communities undergo a process of consultation with those affected before any decision is made.
"Ecuador must promote, protect and respect the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association," concluded Nelson. "To do so, authorities must cease misusing the judicial system against Indigenous and campesino leaders to discourage them from expressing legitimate concerns and demands."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.