Swedish friend of Assange fights to clear his name in Ecuador

Software developer Ola Bini, accused of hacking a computer system illegally, is expected back in court this month.

Swedish software developer Ola Bini sits in court after a local judge ordered him jailed for alleged involvement in hacking government computer systems, in Quito, Ecuador, on May 2, 2019 [Daniel Tapia/Reuters]

Quito, Ecuador – For nearly 21 months, Ola Bini has been waiting for his day in court.

The Swedish software developer and digital privacy activist was arrested in April 2019 in the South American nation on allegations he accessed the computer system of a public institute without permission.

Bini has denied the charge, which carries a three- to five-year prison sentence, while human rights and digital privacy groups have urged the Ecuadorian authorities to ensure the 38-year-old gets a fair trial free from political interference.

After a pre-trial judge on December 16 ruled that prosecutors had enough evidence against Bini to proceed to trial, his lawyer Carlos Soria said he expects the proceedings to resume in early January.

“I know this case will go to trial,” Soria, who has previously called for the case to be dismissed on grounds of insufficient evidence and violations of due process, told Al Jazeera in a video interview on December 24. “In the trial, however, these accusations will not hold up.”

The prosecutor’s office told Al Jazeera it could not comment on the ongoing case.

Assange case

Bini’s arrest came only hours after Ecuador revoked immunity for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and evicted him from the country’s embassy in London, effectively turning him over to the British authorities.

In a news conference announcing Assange’s eviction, the Ecuadorian minister of interior at the time, Maria Paula Romo, said the country had “sufficient evidence” that a member of WikiLeaks close to Assange and living in Ecuador for many years was “attempting to destabilise the [Ecuadorian] government” alongside two Russian hackers.

Bini, who has lived in Ecuador since 2013, was arrested at the Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito hours later while waiting to board a flight to Japan for a planned martial arts camp. Police searched his apartment in the early morning hours of April 12, seizing a vast array of electronic devices and “books related to hacking”.

While Bini and Assange are friends and the two met multiple times during Assange’s asylum in the embassy, Bini has denied accusations that he worked for WikiLeaks or hacked computers and phones. “I protect systems, I don’t break them,” he said in an interview in September 2019.

The expected resumption of Bini’s case this month also coincides with a British judge’s decision on Monday on to refuse the United States’s request to extradite Assange to face espionage and hacking charges.

Procedural irregularities

Bini moved to Ecuador in 2013 to help his former employer ThoughtWorks, an open-source software company, launch a new office in the capital, Quito. He left the firm in 2017 and remained in Ecuador to join a digital privacy non-profit organisation, Centro de Autonomia Digital.

After his arrest in April 2019, the prosecutor’s office originally charged Bini with assault on the integrity of computer systems. A judge ordered him to 90 days in prison in north Quito and froze his bank accounts.

His lawyers objected, saying Bini was arrested without a warrant. They argued officials provided no evidence of an alleged crime to warrant his detention, but an appeals court in May 2019 decided not to overturn Bini’s sentence. His defence presented a habeas corpus suit later that month.

After 70 days in prison, a provincial judge ruled his detention was illegal and arbitrary and ordered Bini’s immediate release. The original charge of assault on a computer system still stood, however. He was also barred from leaving Ecuador and was required to go to the prosecutor’s office weekly.

Ola Bini reacts while leaving a provisional detention centre after an Ecuadorean judge ordered him freed, on June 20, 2019 [Daniel Tapia/Reuters]

“Today we have proven my innocence for the first time and will continue to prove my innocence,” Bini told reporters outside the jailhouse after his release. “I want to thank the judges for what we’ve been saying the whole time.”

The prosecution later backtracked from the original charge after it claimed that an image appeared on Bini’s phone proving he had entered a computer system without permission. The judge deemed the evidence credible and accepted the prosecution’s request to charge Bini with “non-consensual access to a computer system”.

‘Serious contradiction’

Bini’s defence says it has recorded more than 100 procedural and civil liberty violations over the duration of the legal case against him, leaving rights groups to say it has been tainted under the Ecuadorian judicial system.

After the initial accusations by former Minister Romo, the case took a political turn when senior Ecuadorian officials spoke out about Bini’s alleged crimes.

In an interview with CNN Espanol in September 2019, President Lenin Moreno accused Bini of trying to destabilise Ecuador as well as other countries, hinting that the US may have been one of them.

Moreno said there was a lot of evidence against Bini and those would be available one day. At a conference at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC in April 2019, the president also accused Bini of hacking government and personal accounts five days after his detention.

Bini has rejected the accusations and Soria said he was unaware of international investigations against his client.

According to Soria, the case was created against Bini to justify the removal of Assange from the embassy and boost the public’s perception of Moreno’s leadership after a corruption scandal in February 2019, known as the INA papers. Moreno’s approval rating had sunk to a low of 17 percent.

On April 12, 2019, a day after Bini’s detention, Romo said: “We can’t allow Ecuador to become a centre for piracy and spying. That period in our history is over.”

“Unfortunately, knowing the facts of this case, it’s almost certain that the Ecuadorian justice system has not acted independently,” Luis Enríquez, coordinator of the cyber-rights observatory at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolívar in Ecuador, told Al Jazeera in an interview last month.

Amnesty International also has expressed concerns that statements and accusations by high-ranking Ecuadorian officials have interfered with Bini’s right to the presumption of innocence.

“Ola Bini’s case demonstrates a serious contradiction in the Ecuadorian criminal justice system,” Fernanda Doz Costa, the group’s Americas deputy director, said in a statement in August 2019. “Attacks on human rights defenders frequently go unpunished, while unfounded accusations against them are immediately investigated.”

Waiting game

Over the past year, however, it appears Bini’s case has become less of a priority for the government of Moreno, who will not be seeking re-election in May 2021.

Enriquez said he believes the government wants to draw attention away from the case because the prosecution has been unable to amass substantial evidence to back up officials’ public allegations against Bini.

While the future of the case is unknown, Soria told Al Jazeera they will make legal demands to various international courts over Ecuador’s handling of the process once the process finishes in the country.

Meanwhile, the case continues – and Bini and his family and supporters are waiting to see what comes next. “It was a difficult holiday season without Ola,” Gorel Bini Gustafsson, Bini’s mother, told Al Jazeera in a video call from Sweden alongside her husband, Dag.

“Ola often celebrates Christmas with us,” she said, “but he has not been able to do that for the past two years.”

Gorel Bini Gustaffson hugs her son Ola Bini at court in Quito on May 2, 2019 [Daniel Tapia/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera