By Daniela X. Cornejo
On November 3, 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a general hearing on the criminalization of human rights defenders in Ecuador. The hearing began as civil society representatives expressed concern for a colleague who was denied entry into the United States — and was therefore unable to attend the hearing — because her criminal record included a charge for “assisting in terrorist acts.” Alarmingly, the representatives before the IACHR noted that these charges against human rights defenders in Ecuador are not uncommon.
The organizations before the IACHR — Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos (CEDHU), Acción Ecológica, and Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos (INREDH) — alleged that Ecuador unfairly criminalizes human right defenders’ work. Notably, the organizations stated that the government uses the charge of “assisting in terrorist acts” to criminalize harmless conduct such as protesting. This charge is also problematic because the Ecuadorian Penal Code does not define a “terrorist act,” leaving public officials unlimited discretion to categorize a wide range of conduct as “assisting” undefined terrorist acts. Moreover, civil society representatives attending the hearing claimed that the State Public Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Pública del Estado) authorizes the government to call the military to suffocate and remove organized dissenters with the pretext of maintaining public security. Article 43 of the law grants the government power to mobilize military forces in emergency circumstances that threaten the safety and security of the government. The representatives noted that the government has mobilized the military in order to inhibit protest and in doing so has targeted human rights defenders who are expressing their dissent. Finally, the organizations warned that the judiciary unjustly punishes and delays human rights defenders’ release from custody, while crimes committed against human rights defenders generally go unpunished.
The Ecuadorian government retorted that it is working to protect the rights of civil society leaders and human right defenders by restructuring its judicial system and eliminating ambiguous laws. Specifically, the Justice Department is currently drafting a bill that would replace the current Penal Code with an Organic Code of Penal Guarantees (Código Orgánico de Garantías Penales). The new code would address concerns the organizations attending the hearings raised, as it decriminalizes conduct essential for the right to associate and eliminates crimes that may inhibit political protests. Additionally, the government noted that it is providing human rights training to police and military personnel and teaching them about the proportional use of force during protest.
Commissioner Víctor Abramovich expressed concern with any state labeling dissenters as “terrorists,” and requested that the Ecuadorian government promptly abolish those labels, which stigmatize citizens. As the hearing concluded, Commissioners expressed their intention to visit Ecuador in the future and review the pending penal code reform. Ambassador Francisco Proano Arandi shook hands with the Commissioners as he personally invited them to visit Ecuador after the hearing. Ambassador Arandi also commented to the Human Rights Brief that the process of interpreting and reforming the nation’s laws will result in a fair and humane criminal justice system and that these hearings are an important forum for continued dialogue between the government and civil society.