Julian Assange may not have had many options when he was considering where to seek asylum, but even still, Ecuador is a far from obvious choice.
Assange 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.
But Ecuador, a country with a tenuous respect for international human rights law, is counter-intuitive 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.
“I think this 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,” José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, told the Guardian.
“Maybe Assange feels President [Rafael] Correa owes something to him,” Vivanco said.
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 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 misuse of anti-terror laws in dealing with peaceful social protests, undue political influence in the judiciary, and tighter regulations around the operation of domestic and international non-governmental organizations within Ecuador’s borders.
Earlier this year, Correa said he would pardon several news managers and journalists that 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 that sentenced its three directors and opinion editor to three years each in prison and a total of US $40m in damages.
The complaint stemmed from an El Universo 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, “there is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten,” which many took as a warning.
“CPJ research shows that Correa’s administration has led Ecuador into an era of widespread repression by systematically filing defamation lawsuits and smearing critics,” the Committee 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,” according to Reporters Without Borders.
“The same reason was also given in the cases of four of seven other media outlets closed down in the past fortnight. Representatives of the radio and television stations concerned believe, however, that the real reasons were political.”