(Versión en Español aqui). This week, three high profile fugitives fleeing prison sentences for insulting the Ecuadorian President were offered sanctuary by the Sarayaku, an Amazonian community at the forefront of the indigenous resistance movement. Despite pleas from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to suspend the sentences against the men, on Friday a military helicopter landed close to the Sarayaku community and another hovered over its territory, in direct violation of the Ecuadorian constitution and international law.
The community is on alert for further raids and attempts to detain assemblyman Cléver Jiménez, his advisor and investigative journalist Fernando Villavicencio and President of the Union of Doctors, Carlos Figueroa. Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga has issued a plea for international observers to intervene and prevent further aggression from the government.
The attempted invasion of Sarayaku by the military is receiving widespread social media coverage amongst those in the resistance movement, but what were the circumstances which led to this dramatic turn of events?
The story starts in September 2010, when Ecuadorian police went on strike over a new law affecting their benefits. After President Rafael Correa’s failed negotiation attempt at the police HQ in Quito, he accused police of treason and dared them to kill him. Law enforcement officers responded by holding him hostage in a nearby hospital for ten hours. In the resulting clashes between loyal and rebellious police, armed forced and civilians, 8 people were left dead and over 250 were injured.
The indigenous political party Pachakutik subsequently called for Correa to resign or be dismissed on the grounds that his “dictatorial attitude” had generated “serious political turmoil and internal crisis”. Pachakutik assemblyman Cléver Jiménez backed the actions of police who had mobilised against the President, saying “The situation of the police and members of the Armed Forces should be understood as a just action by public servants whose rights have been made vulnerable”.
In 2011, Jiménez and his advisor Fernando Villavicencio filed a request for a criminal investigation against Correa for allegedly committing crimes against humanity, among other offenses, during the police revolt. The attorney general’s office rejected the criminal complaint, deeming it malicious and reckless. Correa responded by suing Jiménez and Villavicencio for “judicial libel.” In April 2013, the National Court of Justice of Ecuador (CNJE) sentenced both men to 18 months in prison. They were also ordered to issue a formal public apology to President Correa and to pay him US $145,000 in damages.
Jiménez and Villavicencio’s appeal was rejected and last month warrants were issued for their arrest, alongside political activist Carlos Figueroa, also accused of insulting the President. On 24th April, the Sarayaku community announced that all three men had been offered sanctuary there “until their situation is resolved favourably and there are guarantees by the State with regard to their physical integrity, their human rights and, particularly, their lives”. In the meantime, the community promised to provide the men with “moral, physical and psychological support and full backing”.
The Sarayaku are usually cited as the most successful example of resistance in Ecuador, best known for winning a historic case against the Ecuadorian state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). In 2012, the Court ruled that the government had violated the community’s rights when it granted an oil company permission to prospect for oil in Sarayaku territory, without consulting or even notifying them. The community remains at the forefront of the resistance against oil exploitation in the Amazon.
With regard to Jiménez, Villavicencio’s and Figueroa, the IACHR has issued a precautionary measure which states that, based on the information presented, the rights of the three men are “in a serious, urgent situation of irreparable harm”. The Court has recommended that Ecuador suspend its sentences against them.
The Ecuadorian government has publicly announced that it will not abide by the precautionary measures issued by the IACHR.
Yesterday, 26th April, the Sarayaku issued a press release stating that the community had been subject to “assault and harassment of its people by the police and military forces” in response to its decision to offer sanctuary to the sentenced men.
Sarayaku can only be reached via plane from the tiny airport in the Amazonian town of Shell, or by motorised canoe from Canelos on the Bobonaza River. On 24th April, shortly after the Sarayaku announced they were sheltering the fugitives, military and police mobilized to the airport and the boat departure point, where they began harassing and inspecting Sarayaku members seeking to enter the territory for the community’s annual congress, which is currently taking place.
On April 25th at approximately 5 pm, two helicopters landed at the river mouth of the Sarayakillo River, just half an hour away from the Sarayaku community. At 7:57 pm another helicopter hovered over Sarayaku territory, generating panic among its inhabitants, particularly the children. The attempted invasion violates the Ecuadorian constitution and international law, which guarantees and protects the rights of indigenous peoples, and goes against the 2012 judgement of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
A Sarayaku statement read: “Uniformed forces just landed in Sarayaquillo, half an hour from Sarayaku Tayjasaruta. If they enter the community, they will confirm the dictatorship present in Ecuador, the abduction of the judicial function and the unwillingness to abide by international law. Fear does not exist!”
In another statement, the community promised “we will be watching and if there is aggression against our people we will resist under Article 98 of the Constitution”.
Article 98 states that “Individuals and communities shall be able to exercise the right to resist deeds or omissions by the public sector or natural persons or non-state legal entities that undermine or can undermine their constitutional rights or call for recognition of new rights”.
Sarayaku President Jose Gualinga has asked for international witnesses to prevent further government oppression: “We are a land of peace; we defend Mother Earth, human rights, and nature. We call upon national and international human rights organizations, as well as organizations of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador, to join in solidarity with the just cause of the Sarayaku. We ask that international observers intervene to avoid aggression, with which we are already being victimized”.
Today, 27th April, the community remains on high alert for further invasions by the military. Keep an eye on this blog in the coming weeks for articles and videos from our visit to the Sarayaku community earlier in the year.