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Protests over Arrest of Indigenous Leaders by Ecuadorian Government

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After the arrests of indigenous demonstrators on charges of terrorism human rights advocates and indigenous Ecuadorian leaders are asserting that President Rafael Correa is criminalizing protest, and that the February arrests of the Shuar activists was a sign of increasing persecution.

One indigenous leader also announced he will be filing charges against the President in international courts.

President Correa has denied the allegations and his justice minister is pursuing charges against a variety of indigenous leaders. In the meantime human rights organizations in Ecuador and elsewhere are publicizing their concerns.

“To designate as terrorism the actions which were undertaken as part of the social protest carried out by the Shuar people in defense of their rights to organize, to the freedom of association and to liberty of expression as enshrined in the Political Constitution of Ecuador and international instruments such as the Inter-American Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, according to the provisions in Article 160.1 of the penal code, is a dangerous misinterpretation of the legal framework tending toward the criminalization of social protest,” according to a joint statement issued by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Ecumenical Commission for Human Rights (CEDHU), the Regional Human Rights Advisory Foundation (INREDH), and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CDES) of Ecuador.

“This is particularly worrisome when the right to resistance is clearly guaranteed in the current Magna Carta of Ecuador,” the statement continued. “There exists a grounded fear that the above-mentioned indigenous men have been implicated in this crime merely for being social leaders and/or for having opposed through public demonstration the government’s proposed water law that was not previously consulted with indigenous peoples. As a result, our organizations condemn the criminalization of protest in Ecuador, as well as the appeal to national justice as a means to silence social demands.”

In the same press statement the Ecuadorian advocates noted that the protests have arisen after the growth of large scale open pit mining by foreign companies on indigenous lands, without the informed consent of the affected communities and without significant oversight by the state. For the international organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW) however, the arrests of the activists by the military is the main focus of their efforts.

“…the arrest and imprisonment of [José] Acacho and other indigenous leaders on charges of terrorism…is only the latest example of the type of human rights violations identified by the HRW” according to a press statement from February 7th. “The Correa Administration has consistently employed the military to back its political will… This alliance between executive and military poses challenges to the practice of full democracy in Ecuador.”

Along with HRW, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador (CONAIE), Marlon Santi, announced on February 9th that he will be approaching the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to file a human rights suit against the Ecuadorian government. Earlier the CONAIE leader issued calls for assistance to Amnesty International, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and to a variety of indigenous organizations throughout Latin America.

The main issue for the advocates is the imprisonment of the indigenous leaders but the specific incident that precipitated the arrests was a large protest against the government-backed Water Law, which many people felt did not give indigenous communities enough measures to defend themselves against polluters.

The 2009 protest drew hundreds of indigenous people and allies and ended in a confrontation with police who were summoned by President Correa to quell the disturbance near the city of Macas. More than 40 police officers and protestors were injured and one protestor, Shuar Professor Bosco Wisum, was killed by some sort of gunfire.

The Correa administration then charged Acacho, Fidel Kaniras, and Pedro Mashiant and others with terrorism, sabotage and connection with the homicide of Professor Wisum. Acacho is a leader of the Shuar Federation and a broadcaster with Radio Arutam, a community station in the Amazonian area of the country.

In a recent press conference, President Correa said that before the 2009 protest Acacho issued a call to his radio listeners to “go into the streets and alleys for violent protest, including with poisoned spears and machetes.” Acacho and several leaders have countered that the government’s translation of the broadcast, which was in Shuar, was either incorrect or “maliciously executed” according to Acacho.

Acacho’s legal team appealed the charges but on January 31, Ecuadorian military helicopters and national police came to Acacho’s home and arrested him, then later Kaniras and Mashiant. Authorities took the men to a prison in Quito, the capital city.

However on February 1, Judge Maria Cristina Narvaez of the Pichincha Court accepted a writ of habeas corpus for the three indigenous activists and released them from prison. Judge Narvarez characterized the arrests as “illegal and arbitrary.”

Upon notification of the release the Correa Administration announced that they would be appealing Narvaez’ decision.