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      Applauding a Protest in Ecuador Could Land You in Prison

      Applauding a Protest in Ecuador Could Land You in Prison Applauding a Protest in Ecuador Could Land You in Prison Applauding a Protest in Ecuador Could Land You in Prison
      Screenshot via Ecuador TV

      Americas

      Applauding a Protest in Ecuador Could Land You in Prison

      By Gaston Cavanagh

      Francisco Endara Daza is hiding because he applauded, though he says he didn't even do that.

      "I am not considering giving myself up because what we have in Ecuador is not justice, just a group of judges acting to please power because they fear for their jobs," the 35-year-old systems engineer told VICE News in a Skype interview from a secret location. "I don't accept that I have committed the crime they have attributed to me which they just made up in order to pursue me. It is an act of retaliation for being critical of the government."

      Endara — who also worked as an assistant professor of economics and wrote critical opinion pieces about the government in different media — is avoiding an arrest warrant to serve an 18-month sentence handed down by Ecuador's highest court for applauding others during a violent protest against President Rafael Correa.

      While this is not the first time that Ecuadorian courts have cracked down on dissent in questionable ways since President Correa took office in 2007, the seemingly preposterous arguments used in the case means it stands out.

      "The government has used penal justice and legally pursued its critics, including journalists, human rights defenders, and protesters on numerous occasions," José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch said. "Endara's case exemplifies the absurd levels this can reach."

      The sentence was emitted in October 2015, and the arrest order dates from February 3, this year. The protest itself took place on September 30, 2010, in front of the state-owned network, Ecuador TV.

      The situation in Ecuador at the time was tense and confused. A renegade group of police and low-level military officers were in open rebellion. There was talk that Correa had been kidnapped, and rumors of a coup.

      Endara had joined hundreds of other Ecuadorians who went to the network's headquarters in the capital Quito. They were protesting against the government's decision to interrupt the signal of the private TV networks. This meant only state-owned channels could broadcast.

      During the protest one group broke into the network where they shattered some glass doors.

      In the wake of the protest 13 people were prosecuted — all of them were known opponents of the president. One of them was Endara.

      He was initially said to have "participated via omission," and then with being an "accomplice to sabotage and terrorism." During the subsequent appeal the prosecution instead argued that he had committed a crime because "he applauded."

      After five years of legal battles the case reached the highest court in the land, which is where he was convicted of participating in damaging public property. The court again relied on his supposed applause to justify the conviction and sentence.

      During the trial a video showed Endara standing on the sidewalk outside the network's doors not doing very much.

      Even one of the sentences along the complex legal route accepted that he was neither the "author" of the crime, nor an "agitator." Instead it described his role as "more like that of a peacemaker." The problem for Endara, however, was that the sentence also said he had still participated by "manifesting his general agreement with the social collective and making it clear with his applause."

      According to his lawyer, Paulina Araujo, even this is based on very sketchy evidence. The court, she said, accepted the testimony of an expert witness for the prosecution who analysed a section of the video showing Endara's back and concluded that he was clapping.

      "The court considered that it was proved that he was applauding, even though the video doesn't show it," Araujo said. "And the Ecuadorian authorities considered that this was a sign of a crime against the state."

      The sentence handed down to Endara has been taken up by human rights groups as emblematic of both attacks against freedom of expression in Correa's administration, and the government's intervention in judicial processes.

      Local rights defenders, such as Enrique Herrería of the Ecuadorian Rights and Justice Observatory, said that the case was rooted in the control exercised by the Correa administration over judges, many of whom are former government officials. "For as long as Correa is in power, he's going to continue subjecting the justice system to his political demands," he told VICE News.

      Endara is not the only one of the 13 accused of crimes related to the storming of the TV network to be convicted, though his is the only case where the applause argument was used.

      He told VICE News that four of the remaining 12 have also been convicted to 18 months in jail for crimes related to the protest. Of these five, one has taken refuge in the headquarters of a political party, and the other three he does not know their whereabouts. Of the remaining eight, he said that four are fugitives, two others have received political asylum in the Czech Republic, and two others were pardoned. 

      One of these was Paul Camacho, a law professor, who was the only person clearly identified as having participated in any violence. He was given a presidential pardon when the Pope visited Ecuador last summer.

      Several Ecuadorian government officials contacted by phone refused to comment. The only one prepared to talk would only say that, "These are issues that the justice system has to take care of."

      The Endara case is not the only extreme example of such crackdowns on freedom of speech in the Correa administration.

      Last year a left wing leader called Sebastían Cevallos posted on Twitter that several family members of the Ecuadorian labor minister, Carlos Marx Carrasco, had jobs in different government institutions. One of them took him to court for libel. Cevallos was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

      Another case last year involved a city council member, Jeannine Cruz Vaca, spending a month in jail for telling a city mayor to "stop lying" in a tweet. She also attached a video in which she was seen questioning him about sudden cutbacks in a city water sanitation project.

      None of this has prevented President Correa from presenting himself and his government as defenders of free speech, mostly famously in his willingness to grant asylum to Julian Assange.

      Earlier this month Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño celebrated the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions' conclusion that the founder of Wikileaks, who is currently living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has been arbitrarily detained by the British authorities who insist they will arrest him if he steps out the door.

      "It's a victory for truth, a victory for justice, and a victory for international law," Patiño told a press conference. "Let's hope it is also a victory for freedom because what is at stake is the liberty of a human being."

      From his hiding place, Endara remains defiant. "Ecuadorian justice will one day have to respond for these abuses of human rights," he said.

      Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh

      Topics: americas, ecuador, rafael correa, ?francisco endara daza, free speech, julian assange, wikileaks, protest, south america

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