Talking About Ecuador’s Political Prisoners: an Interview With Marcela Aguiñaga

In October, eight protesters were killed during eleven days of demonstrations against a decree by Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno to eliminate fuel subsidies in order to comply with a structural adjustment loan he signed with the IMF. Other articles and interviews on Counterpunch have discussed how Moreno ditched his left wing campaign platform as soon as he took office in May of 2017 (here, here, and here). The manner in which Moreno has aggressively trampled judicial independence and ruthlessly pursued political opponents has been discussed in other interviews (here, here, here and here)

Below is an interview with National Assembly member Marcela Aguiñaga. She is being investigated for incitement for having attended a press conference. She spoke to me about various political prisoners in Ecuador who, like her, are supporters of former President Rafael Correa (also known as Correístas). Last year I interviewed one of the prisoners she talks about below (former legislator Virgilio Hernandez) for Counterpunch. In addition to political prisoners, Aguiñaga talks about three elected representatives who fled to the Mexican Embassy since October.

Joe Emersberger: Please talk about the two elected representatives who have been in prison since the anti-austerity protests in October.

Marcela Aguiñaga: Those are my comrades Yofre Poma and Paola Pabón. The revolt in October led to acts of persecution. My comrade, Yofre Poma, a sitting legislator, was arrested for being present during an attempted takeover [by protesters] of an oil well. It was not shown that he was guilty of anything. He was there as a representative of the people trying to contain the fury and outrage of the citizens against the government’s economic policies. He is in jail serving a 16 month sentence. His conviction went through what is called a direct procedure which applies when people are arrested while allegedly committing the crime. His conviction is not final. His lawyers are still appealing it as they are entitled to under the law.

He is imprisoned here in the city of Quito in a facility known as “Prison Four” even though, in Ecuador, when defendants are sentenced to less than 5 years, they can apply for a conditional suspension of the sentence. That is, they can serve it outside prison when they have no criminal record, have “social ties” to the community, and are not a danger to society.

It should be highlighted that Yofre Poma was sentenced for the same type of crime, under the same circumstances, as the governor of Sucumbíos who is from another political party. The governor of Sucumbíos was given a conditional suspension of his sentence. But Yofre Poma is not because he is a Correísta. It’s clear how the Ecuadorian legal system is being used to pursue those who think differently.

Now the case of Paola Pabón is different. Paola Pabón is the governor of the province of Pichincha. She was detained by an urgent act and held for 24 hours while being formally charged with rebellion, a really serious crime in our legal system. She was then placed in pre-trial detention. She is in a maximum security prison called the Latacunga Regional Center. In other words, an elected governor, who has “social ties”, who has no criminal record, and who is not a risk to society, is treated as a criminal, and her rights are being violated.

JE: Did issues of jurisdiction or immunity arise because she is an elected governor?

MA: Jurisdiction did but she doesn’t have immunity from this charge. The case was tried before the provincial court of Pichincha. So the jurisdiction was respected but what’s glaring is the use of pretrial detention. In Ecuador, according to our constitution, it should be a measure of last resort, one that should be replaced with other precautionary measures. In Ecuador today, it’s being used all over the place and, unfortunately, violating all legal principles. On several occasions, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has not only drawn attention to this, but also sanctioned Ecuador for imposing pretrial detention without respecting the principles of necessity, proportionality and exceptionality. Unfortunately, today they do not respect those who think differently and who have clearly said that they are opponents of the national government. Opponents are criminalized.

JE: What is the evidence against Paola Pabón?

MA: Some of the evidence consists of tweets where she expressed herself as a political actor and representative of the province of Pichincha. They have also pointed to conversations she had with her technical team where she coordinated the mobilization of ambulances for people in the city of Quito [part of Pichincha]. Additionally, she is accused of financing this alleged crime of rebellion. But to this day there is no evidence of economic transfers to armed groups which is what would constitute a crime of rebellion. It’s clear that this investigation lacks any foundation.

JE: Of the other political actors who were imprisoned (not including those who have sought political asylum) in the wake of the October protests, are any more of them sitting elected representatives?

MA: Just Paola Pabón y Yofre Poma, but it’s important to note that other elected authorities in Ecuador from other political parties, with other ideologies, also came out to the streets during those days of chaos. There was the mayor of Guayaquil, the governor of Azuay, the governor of Cotopaxi among others. None of them are prosecuted, sentenced, or worse still deprived of their freedom.

In the city of Guayaquil, the [right wing] mayor ordered the closure of access roads to the city and absolutely nothing happened to her. It shows that the legal system is being used to combat the political adversaries that most bother, annoy and hinder the government of Lenin Moreno.

JE: What about Jaime Vargas, president of CONAIE [an indigenous federation], who prominently led street protests against Moreno’s government? What happened to him?

MA: Well in the case of Jaime Vargas and Leonidas Iza and others, they are currently under investigation for various alleged crimes: paralyzing public services, destruction of state property, kidnapping, disturbing the peace, among others. It is a range of crimes for which they are officially under investigation, but they are still free and participating as social and political actors openly giving their opinions as is appropriate in a country that’s supposedly a democracy.

JE: What about the cases of Virgilio Hernández, Magdalena Robles and Christian González?

MA: Virgilio Hernández and Christian González are in prison. Virgilio Hernández is the Executive Secretary of the Social Commitment political organization to which we belong. Christian is a young leftist and also a member of our organization that is called “Correist”. Those are the kinds of people the government has by far the most interest in silencing because of their clear, transparent opposition to its economic policies.

In the case of Virgilio Hernández, he is also in pre-trial detention here in Quito, in “Prison Four”, while being investigated for the crime of rebellion. What is the evidence? Basically messages on Whatsup, a few tweets, nothing more. In the case Christian González, it’s also Whatsup messages on his cell phone and some left-wing books, left-wing posters, the most farfetched things you can think of to support the prosecution.

JE: And the journalist Magdalena Robles, is she still in prison?

MA: Magdalena is an activist, a supporter of our political organization in the city of Guayaquil. Magdalena was in jail for about 20 days for filming a march in the city of Guayaquil. Members of the police force arrested her for allegedly paralyzing public services which made no sense at all. Finally, a judge released her despite a new prosecutor trying to keep her in jail by bringing a charge of illicit association. Luckily, I think there are still decent judges, they did not keep her in pretrial detention. Today, Magdalena is free which means so much to a woman of this country, a single mother who was deprived of her freedom.

JE: But she is still being investigated?

MA: She is still being investigated for illicit association.

JE: What of the legislator Gabriela Rivadeneira, is she still in the Mexican embassy where she fled as a consequence of the October protests?

MA: Yes. She and two other members of our legislative block (Citizens Revolution but known as “Correístas”) made the decision to ask for protection from the Mexican embassy. We must thank the Mexican people for their generosity in protecting political actors opposed to a government. My fellow legislator Gabriela is being investigated for the alleged offense of incitement. And her husband has an arrest warrant for allegedly participating with Christian González, Virgilio Hernández and others in the crime of rebellion. So Gabriela is in the process of getting asylum. She and her husband are at the embassy. My two other comrades, Soledad Buendía and Carlos Viteri, are also in the process requesting asylum because they and their families have been subjected to extrajudicial harassment. They have therefore felt the need to ask for protection from the Mexican embassy.

The onslaught against Gabriela began with a press conference on Thursday, October 3, where she spoke accompanied by 20 legislators. In full exercise of her duties as a legislator, Gabriela asked that the president of the National Assembly convene a plenary session to analyze the serious situation that Ecuador was experiencing – especially given that a state of exception had been decreed that limited the constitutional rights of Ecuadorians. Gabriela said that the behavior of Lenin Moreno’s government warranted debating his impeachment in the National Assembly or invoking a “muerte cruzada” (mutual death) which in our constitution means that the National Assembly decides that the President has not fulfilled his functions during a national crisis and that his term must end. Early elections are then called [for both President and National Assembly].

For these statements, Gabriela is being investigated for incitement, as am I and my fellow legislator Marcela Holguín – simply for being present at the press conference without saying anything.

Beyond that, Gabriela’s statements were legal and constitutional. They persecute us for our assertions when we are legislators and we can give opinions and declarations. That’s why we have parliamentary immunity. It would be unlikely that in any part of the world, in any halfway civilized country, that a legislator would be tried for statements when legislators all over the world have immunity so that they can speak, opine, investigate without repercussions

So this is what we are living in Ecuador right now – a violation of all constitutional rights, especially of political opponents who most unsettle the government in office.

JE: Have Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch been of any help to the political prisoners?

MA: Not at all. What I do have to recognize is the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR made an on-site visit. The visit has resulted in a preliminary examination that already shows the excessive use of preventive detention, the possibility that political opponents of the government are being persecuted, and the disproportionate use of lethal force. This is something that, once legal options are exhausted in Ecuador, we can use in international channels to defend our rights. In the case of human rights organizations, there was nothing said even when several media outlets had their rights violated. Some were taken off the air, like Telesur, or closed as was Pichincha Universal. Others were removed from the public operating network called CNT as was Russia Today because they were critical in the most difficult times and were very persistent in showing images of violence, chaos, and anarchy that Ecuador experienced during those days of social conflict.

JE: Can you explain the victory you just had in the National Assembly? A proposed economic law of the government’s was defeated.

MA: I believe the victory belongs to the Ecuadorian people. We must thank them for trusting us. It is a clear message to the government. It’s a message that its neoliberal policies and a failed economic plan are not benefiting Ecuador. The government has to rectify. It must listen to the population, who are saying that they no longer want more unfair taxes, that there are other ways to revive the economy, that there are alternatives. It’s time for the national government to change course after this message that was sent by the National Assembly.

JE: How many votes did your allies cast against the defeated law?

MA: We are 29

JE: And what of Alianza País [which used to be Rafael Correa’s party but is now officially run by Lenin Moreno] how did they vote?

MA: There were 32 votes against [shelving the law]  from Alianza País, a block that is fractured. Some of them voted in favor. Some have already left the party and declared themselves independent. Others abstained. It shows the fragility of the government. It does not have a legislative block to discuss and defend it proposed laws.

Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and CounterPunch.