Using courts to harass Ecuador’s dissidents

Former cabinet minister and last indigenous government member Monica Chuji is facing trial for defamation.

correa and chuji
President Correa has been able to repress the indigenous protests at little political cost, but as the protests continue to mobilise and grow across the country, it may be in Correa’s best interest to listen to them [EPA]

Ecuadorian former minister and activist Monica Chuji is about to face trial for defamation. The president’s secretary of administration, Vinicio Alvarado, accuses her of defamatory libel for describing him as nouveau riche in a February interview.

While this lawsuit against a former cabinet member reveals the extent of the persecution against those opposing the government of Rafel Correa, it also calls attention to the lingering permissibility of harassing indigenous peoples in the region.

Alvarado, the accuser, asks for three years of jail as well as US$400,000 for “moral damages”. Chuji’s lawyer, a recognised constitutional law expert, working with the support of the human rights organisation INREDH, contends the accusation is political and holds no legal ground.

Angering the nouveau riche

Alvarado has become one of the most powerful people in Correa’s government. Previously working with President Abdala Bucaram, Alvaredo is connected to powerful business sectors in the coastal region. He is the person in charge of Correa’s entire publicity apparatus, a key position in an administration that has made image and communication a key tool of governance. Over the past year, corruption scandals surrounded the publicist, and the magazine Vanguardia ran a cover story on his obscure businesses with Carondelet.

When Chuji told a journalist that Alvarado was amongst the nouveau riches that had acquired wealth in the current administration, she merely echoed what others had voiced before her. The difference was the political position she placed herself in.

Chuji had not only resigned as a cabinet member in the Correa administration to join the opposition, she was publicly denouncing Correa’s upcoming referendum as a strategy to take over the judiciary and censor the press. The government was getting ready for the referendum – barely won as dissent solidified across indigenous provinces – and Chuji’s public remarks were less than helpful, to put it mildly.

From presidential spokesperson to pariah

The crux of this case might not lay in Chuji’s interview, but in the legitimacy she holds in criticising government policies both as a former cabinet member and indigenous leader.

Monica Chuji is a Kichwa from Sarayaku, Sucumbios, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. She has long been an activist in the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country’s strongest social movement, partaking in national mobilisations as well as international forums such as the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples.

Appointed Minister of Communication by Correa, she became his spokesperson, developing a close relationship with the president.

But when Correa sent military troops to repress a protest against oil drilling practices in the Amazonian town of Dayuma in December 2007, Chuji denounced police brutality and called for a public investigation. Frustrated by escalating rhetoric against indigenous mobilisation for collective rights and prior consent, she left Correa’s cabinet to join the 2008 constitutional assembly.

An indigenous protest against oil drilling in Dayuma was shut down by troops [EPA]

She acted as an Assembly Member for the governing party, Alianza Pais, on the commission on Natural Resources and Biodiversity throughout the controversial negotiations on water, oil and mining. Chuji left the party as soon as the Assembly process was finalised-with others following her lead.

Her letter of resignation denounced the government’s practices of criminalisation, cooptation and censorship of social movements, stressing that the impossibility of expressing dissenting ideas was putting democracy at risk. As Correa’s sole and last indigenous cabinet member, her departure locked the government into a conflictive relationship with the indigenous movement.

It might be tricky to find Chuji guilty of defamation. She is, however, a symbol of Correa’s broken relationship with social movements and the bases he claims to represent.

Litigation in a politicised judiciary

Alvarado still needs to prove defamation and moral damage to the court on November 18. Frivolous litigation, the practice of pursuing claims that are insufficient or hold no underlying justification in fact, is rarely engaged with the intention to win. The goal, instead, is to exercise pressure on the accused: Silencing through intimidation and the burden of legal proceedings. This has precisely been Correa’s strategy in dealing with his opposition.

The case of Monica Chuji is not an isolated one.

There are currently more than 200 lawsuits of this kind filled against activists who oppose government policies. This lawsuit, insists Chuji, should be read as political retaliation; a mere thread in the larger political fabric of sustained harassment and censorship against voices of opposition to the administration.

Political retaliation may be particularly easy, given the current dismantlement of judicial autonomy. The May 7 referendum provided Correa authority to revamp the judiciary apparatus. A commission appointed by the government started re-structuring the legal sector in July, and will be evaluating its 8,000 employees over the next 18 months. Only those who meet the evaluation standards will keep their positions.

In the commission’s first week, 48 judges were removed – reiterating an all-too-familiar trend where presidents govern through the courts.

The vulnerability of indigenous opposition

The defamation case against Chuji reveals much more than resentment due to alleged name-calling. This case is symptomatic of the Ecuadorian government’s growing authoritarian practices, as well as the dangerous loss of judiciary autonomy.

Chuji was one of Correa’s closest cabinet members, and the lawsuit illustrates the government’s willingness to persecute opposing views, even if they come from its own members.

Furthermore, the case falls at the intersection of the government’s two-track strategy to undermine political opposition. On one front, Correa’s administration has been targeting the media, instigating fear and fostering self-censorship to disable the emergence of political alternatives. Journalists have been repeatedly harassed and aggressed, and lawsuits have been used to punish opposition in the media, the most visible case being that against the newspaper El Universo.

On another front, Correa’s government has worked hard to debilitate indigenous dissent.

The indigenous movement has the largest mobilisation capacity in Ecuador, a historical record for overthrowing governments, and the ability to organise beyond expected (i.e., controllable) political spaces. If it holds more mobilisation capacity, however, it is also more vulnerable to class hierarchy for its very composition – grassroots, rural and mostly poor.

In that sense, Correa’s government can levy a disproportionate amount of legal repression against indigenous activists, generating limited outcry, because it bears low political costs. In a society marked by racial divides, repressing indigenous opposition is more affordable – if not permissible.

What may be a frivolous lawsuit in legal terms could force Chuji to seek political asylum. But it does not need to be so. Correa is not only a savvy politician but has no political leader that could stand against him.

As indigenous contestation gains momentum across the region, President Correa may consider revamping his relationship with legitimate social movements to reframe his political legacy towards more democratic credentials. Not because it is the right thing to do (and it is), but because it might be the most effective way to stay in power.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.