QUITO, Ecuador -- Pablo Castro keeps glancing over his shoulder, and only once he’s in a park alone does he start talking. He says he likes open spaces, but he also has reasons for caution. Last year, while gathered with nine colleagues, planning to join protests over water rights, police broke down the door and arrested them. The men and women — most students in their 20s — were accused of planting small explosives that scattered pamphlets. The government never proved a connection, but the Luluncoto 10, as they’re known, were charged with terrorism and spent a year in jail. Castro, 25, says their only crime was opposing the administration.
Ecuador is back in the spotlight as it mulls giving NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum in the name of democracy and human rights. President Rafael Correa, who granted WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange asylum last year, is being hailed as a champion of free speech and is cementing his role as one of Latin America’s leading leftists.
But at home, his record is more complicated. As he’s fought for WikiLeaks’ right to publish secret and confidential information, he’s imposed some of the hemisphere’s most draconian regulations on his own press. This week, a new media watchdog with sweeping powers began operating. It’s headed by a Correa appointee. The president has also passed decrees hobbling civil-society groups and, as Castro discovered, dusted-off dictatorship-era laws from the 1960s that give authorities a wide dragnet to sweep up “terrorists.”
“They were never able to prove anything in our case, but they still charged us with terrorism,” said Castro, a longtime student activist. “What were they trying to say with that trial? That whoever opposes the government is a terrorist.”
His case isn’t isolated. Two weeks ago, Mery Zamora, a leader of a teachers’ union, was sentenced to eight years in jail on terrorism and sabotage charges. Her crime? Inciting students to take to the streets of Guayaquil in 2010 at a time when Correa was briefly held hostage by police. The government says Zamora’s acts were tantamount to supporting a coup. Seven people in Cotopaxi are also facing terrorism charges for leading a similar protest.
Through 2011, there have been at least 204 cases of civil society and environmental leaders charged with terrorism and sabotage, according to the Andino University’s human rights program. In addition, 48 union leaders and 20 journalists have faced criminal charges. The university won’t provide updated figures because the government backlash against the 2011 report forced the university to vet its data with an international commission, which has yet to release its findings.
Laws were broken in some of those cases, said Carlos David Herrera, a human rights professor at Quito’s Catholic University, but few, if any, qualify as terrorism. Instead, the charges seem designed to silence government critics.
“You hear the word ‘terrorism’ and it conjures up all sorts of images,” he said, noting that some human rights groups are wary of defending terrorists. “But the reality is these people were holding marches that have, for the most part, been absolutely innocent, and when there has been violence they weren’t directly involved.”