Yesterday, a court in Ecuador found Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader who opposes mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon, not guilty of inciting violence. The verdict ends a 17-month ordeal that Wachapá should never have endured.
Wachapá was charged with inciting violence after a December 2016 clash between police and opponents of a mining project. Wachapá was president of a Shuar indigenous association that opposed the mining project at the time of his arrest, but he denied taking part in the confrontation, and the prosecutor had no evidence proving otherwise. After the clash at the mine, then-President Rafael Correa publicly denounced several indigenous leaders who opposed the mining project, singling out Wachapá on a nationally broadcast TV address.
Days after Correa’s broadcast, the Interior Ministry submitted a criminal complaint against Wachapá, prompting a prosecutor to charge him with “incitement to violence.” Wachapá was arrested and spent four months in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison, 300 kilometers from his family. He was granted provisional release after paying a US$6000 bail in April 2017.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the case and found that the only arguably relevant evidence against Wachapá was a message he posted to Facebook after the confrontation. Though the language of that post is ambiguous, it was not defensible for the prosecution to bring serious criminal charges solely on the strength of this one weak piece of evidence.
Wachapá isn’t alone. A recent Human Rights Watch report shows that prosecutors in three prominent cases in Ecuador – including Wachapá’s – failed to produce sufficient evidence to support serious charges or justify years-long criminal investigations against indigenous leaders and environmentalists.
Human Rights Watch also found credible evidence that high-level officials of Correa’s administration have interfered in court cases touching on government interests. It was the interior vice-minister who filed the criminal complaint against Wachapá. Wachapá’s lawyers said he sat in the courtroom for every hearing, except for the final trial hearing.
Yesterday’s verdict ends the legal harassment of the indigenous leader – something he never should have gone through. The Attorney General’s office should investigate the handling of this case and take steps to ensure that no one is subjected to arbitrary arrest or incarceration. It should also ensure no one is prosecuted in the absence of credible evidence linking them to a crime.