Friday, August 1, 2014

Report Points to Holes in Ecuador’s Judicial Independence

A new report on Ecuador’s judiciary published by three civil society groups in the region is making waves in the South American country.

The report, “Judicial Independence in Ecuador's Judicial Reform Process” (Spanish, .pdf file), was authored by Peruvian jurist Luis Pasara. It was released this week by the Washington-based Due Process of Law Foundation, Colombia’s Dejusticia, and the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) of Peru. It takes an in-depth look at the effect of judicial reforms in Ecuador, which were ratified by a 2011 national referendum.

Pasara focuses on twelve recent cases in which opponents of President Rafael Correa; indigenous, environmental and student activists; and opposition journalists have been found guilty of disproportionate charges including defamation, sabotage, disturbing public order and even terrorism. Some of these, like the libel case against the directors of El Universo, were reported in international media and are relatively high-profile. Others, like the August 2013 conviction of three indigenous community leaders of “organized terrorism” following a 2009 anti-mining protest in which protesters clashed with police and one individual was killed, are less well-known outside Ecuador.

On top of the politicization apparent in these rulings, the researcher also points to evidence that judges who do not conform to the Correa administration’s preferences have been sacked. When the 2011 reforms were approved, they paved way for the creation of a new Judicial Council tasked with appointing judges and overseeing disciplinary proceedings in the court system. Based on a sample of 42 such disciplinary cases, the report determines that most of them involved allegations that judges committed “inexcusable errors” in their decisions.

In effect, Pasara argues, this amounted to removal of judges not because they applied laws incorrectly, but simply because the Judicial Council disagreed with their decisions.

The report’s publication was picked up by local (see El Comercio, La Hora) and international (Colombia’s El Espectador, Spain’s El Pais) press. El Pais also follows up on it today with a critical look at the selection process for Supreme Court justices in the country, noting concerns that a shift from lifetime appointments to nine-year terms could pave the way for undue executive influence on the court.

Pasara's findings have also struck a nerve in Ecuador. As El Comercio reports, yesterday Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Ramirez released a statement claiming that Pasara's selection of sample cases was biased, and responded to “political-media criteria” rather than judicial principles. According to El Universo, Judicial Council President Gustavo Jalkh has lashed out at the report as well, accusing its sponsors of having hidden motives.

News Briefs
  • President Cristina Fernandez yesterday gave her first remarks in the wake of the July 30 deadline for Argentina and holdouts to make a deal on payments. Noting that officials had attempted to transfer payments to holders of restructured bonds but were prevented by the effects of a U.S. court ruling, the president insisted that Argentina is not technically in default. As the L.A. Times reports, this statement was echoed by cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, who also said that the government was considering taking its holdout battle to the International Court of Justice at the Hague or the United Nations.
  • Mexico’s Animal Politico looks at a new law passed by state lawmakers in Sinaloa that severely restricts reporting on insecurity and crime. In addition to banning officials from speaking to the press without permission of state prosecutors, the law prevents journalists from photographing or recording crime scenes, a “direct violation of the right to information,” the news site argues.
  • The Cuban government appears to be getting off relatively easy in the U.S. for violating an international embargo on weapons transfer to North Korea last year, the Miami Herald reports. On Wednesday the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two North Korean companies and various cargo ships linked to the discovery of Cuban weapons bound for the country in the Panama Canal last year, but barely mentioned Cuba’s role in the incident. According to the Herald, “a knowledgeable Washington official” hinted that authorities felt that the current U.S. embargo against Cuba was sufficient and that further sanctions would be redundant.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are due to meet today in Cartagena. As Semana magazine reports, one of the top issues on the agenda will likely be the thriving trade in subsidized Venezuelan fuel and food along the Colombian border, which is contributing to scarcity of goods in the area. EFE notes that the meeting comes just as Santos has announced a cabinet shuffle in which ex-Senator Juan Fernando Cristo was named as his new interior minister.
  • One day after the head of Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, resigned, his second-in-command Ramon Jose Medina has stepped down as well.  Live Aveledo, Medina came under criticism from elements of the MUD recently, after he insinuated that jailed opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez brought his imprisonment on himself.
  • Today’s New York Times reports on Knights Templar cartel kingpin Servando Gomez, and his penchant for taunting officials in online videos and making media appearances. The NYT notes that the latest video of him posted online, which shows him meeting with the son of a former governor of Michoacan, raises questions about his connection with the political class in the state.
  • The Agence France-Presse looks at Uruguay’s innovative approach to its strict anti-tobacco legislation, which is fueling an ongoing David and Goliath-type battle against Phillip Morris in a World Bank tribunal.  As the AFP notes, one of the signature initiatives of the 2006 anti-smoking law has been the launch of a Health Ministry program which hires former tobacco industry workers as to monitor compliance with the measure.
  • The BBC reports that the top Guatemalan immigration official, Alejandra Gordillo, has announced that U.S., Mexican and Guatemalan authorities have reached an agreement to establish more checkpoints in southern Mexico to prevent migrants from hitching a ride north on the dangerous freight train known as “La Bestia.”