news commentary
  June 22, 2012

 

Dear Julian ...

What's behind Assange's decisioni to seek refuge in Ecuador, and what about the country's dismal record in transparency?

by Manuela Picq | Al Jazeera

Dear Julian,

I heard you have taken refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex crime charges. By now, the government of Ecuador should be about to decide on your asylum request. You have been so busy lately, fighting legal battles while under house arrest, with so much going on in your life that you may have overlooked world news. Maybe you heard that freedom of expression is under attack in Ecuador. So before you decide to board a plane to Quito, I thought I would fill you in.

Granted, you are in a tough position. The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks is certainly one of the boldest and most subversive publishing acts in history. Your pursuit of truth has changed world politics, forcing transparency upon governments and strengthening human rights. The enterprise is, as predicted, as honorable as it is dangerous. Being extradited to Sweden may likely lead to a transfer to the US, where you will be charged with espionage without ever seeing your lawyer or having any semblance of due process, locked behind bars eating cat food for the rest of your days.

Just look at Bradley Manning and you have a glimpse of what is awaiting you. The world needs you, and you need legal protection as much as effective political support. British courts stood up for human rights during the Pinochet case, but this time they aligned with the bad guys. The problem is that whichever country protects you will have to be bold enough to stand up to the US. And that, as you know, takes a lot of guts and the right political coalitions.

It was pretty strategic of you to demand political asylum in Ecuador. First, President Rafael Correa has exercised a bold, loud discourse against US imperial practices, and has acted accordingly. As soon as President Correa arrived in office he closed down the US military base in Manta, on the coast of Ecuador, and challenged the legitimacy of IMF practices.

Recently, the government preferred to take a Chinese loan at a higher interest rate to build the Coca Codo Sinclair Dam in the Amazon rather than taking a loan involving any dependency on the US.

Different at home

Second, Ecuador has strategic political support in the region. President Correa is following the model of Chavez's political irreverence with as much enthusiasm, to a certain extent taking the lead as Chavez battles with cancer. Ecuador has become a strong ally to Venezuela, and it has a geopolitical support from the entire ALBA bloc. The country is on relatively good terms with Latin American governments at large. Third, Ecuador already likes you. The government publicly supported the importance of WikiLeaks after the diplomatic cables exposed the extent of US political intervention in national politics. Ecuador was willing to shelter you when the US decried you as an enemy of the state two years ago, and anti-US sentiments, as well as geopolitical power, have only increased in the past months.

What you should keep in mind is that President Correa may defend whistle blowers that attack the US abroad, but has been giving a really hard time to anybody disagreeing with him at home. Seeking transparency can lead you to jail, or at least to million-dollar trials. Investigative journalists Christian Zurita and Carlos Calderón got in major legal trouble with their book "Big Brother", which exposed corruption scandals in the government involving the president's younger brother, Fabricio Correa. They got sued for $10 million for moral damages even after the president had to acknowledge his brother's corruption. Zurita described the trial as "the chronicle of a decision foretold" referring to the "pre-determined" judgment of fifth civil court of Pichincha judge, Mercedes Hatch.

This is one case among many. Indigenous peoples protesting against the privatization of water were labeled as terrorists and charged with sabotage. Then the daily newspaper El Universo received more media attention. The owners and editors were sentenced for three years in jail and $42 million in legal fines for referring to the president as a dictator in an editorial. Although there was no waterboarding involved, there was no due process either, and judge Monica Encalada even fled the country.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) did what it could do to help. In addition to reports by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, the commission made official recommendations demanding that the state of Ecuador stop harassing journalists and censoring the media through legal intimidation. Eventually, President Correa extended his pardon to members of the media and some opposition leaders.

Pursuit of truth in Ecuador?

Oh, but you may be too late to expect any protection from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. All the pressure coming from the IACHR really upset President Correa, who launched a battle to undermine its funding and political authority. Actually, we are rather concerned about the systematic attacks against the IACHR. It is, after all, a much-used court for Latin Americans seeking redress or even defense from their own governments. Not only is investigative journalism a low-paying job, it may become an even more risky business if Ecuador is able to weaken the inter-American human rights system.

The bottom line is that the pursuit of truth and transparency is dangerous business in Ecuador too. Challenging state secrecy invariably puts the messenger in trouble. It all depends which emperor you are unclothing. Stakes vary depending on which government defines someone as its enemy, and which government may protect the messenger to gain ground in the broader geopolitical game.

Ecuadorians will, of course, be thrilled if Correa's government grants you political asylum. You will be welcomed to the llacta (land) with open arms and hearts. It would be great to see Ecuador standing up to the US and taking global leadership in the defense of freedom of expression. In fact, this is exactly what the opposition has been demanding of President Correa. After all, Ecuadorians deserve access to truth and transparency as much as the rest of the world.

And who knows, if you come, maybe you can try a good chat with your mashi ["friend"] Rafael and convince him that transparency is good at home too.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples' rights in the Amazon.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.