What My Friend’s Arrest in Ecuador Can Teach Us About Arbitrary Detention

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) expounds on this, saying: “Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.”

Just under a month ago, my friend Ola Bini was arrested at the airport Quito, Ecuador. Ola, a man whose name inconveniently sounds like “hello” in his adopted home, is a data privacy advocate and widely-recognized tech savant. Sometimes he paints his nails black and he likes that really terrible, dry science fiction--the kind where it’s all science and no character development. But I can forgive him that because he’s a sweet person, generous with his time and expertise, and a zealous but ethical advocate for the human right to privacy.

Unfortunately, he’s sitting in a Ecuadorian jail for reasons that could be best described as governmental paranoia. His charges, which were slow in being identified, are “‘alleged participation in the crime of assault on the integrity of computer systems’ and attempts to destabilise the country.”  The only “evidence” to support this is a pile of USBs, computers, and other tools of the software developer’s trade. I don’t mean the content of those devices--just the existence of the devices themselves. Presumably the content would contain evidence if any existed, but none has been produced. Since they don’t have any evidence, they’ve decided to hold him in a 90-day “preventative detention.”

Ola Bini, third from right, at my son Zeke's second birthday party in Quito, Ecuador in 2014.

Ola Bini, third from right, at my son Zeke's second birthday party in Quito, Ecuador in 2014.

Arbitrary arrest and detention, followed by bogus prosecutions, and even convictions in kangaroo courts, plague human rights defenders, journalists and other advocates worldwide. Take the two Reuters reporters recently released from jail in Burma after 500 days of detention for a supposed violation of the Official Secrets Act. The evidence in that case indicates that they were detained for reporting on the murder of 10 Rohingya men and boys with the participation of state security forces. This happens in Colombia, Burundi, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and even right here in the US.

I believe strongly in the right to privacy. Without privacy, we can’t have agency, and without agency we are slaves. That’s why I have dedicated my life to this struggle. Surveillance is a threat to us all, we must stop it.

“The leaders of the world are waging a war against knowledge. The case against me is based on the books I’ve read and the technology I have. This is Orwellian - ThoughtCrime. We can’t let this happen. The world will close in closer and closer on us, until we have nothing left. If Ecuador can do this, so can others. We have to stop this idea now, before it’s too late.”

-Ola Bini, Letter from El Inca Prison, Ecuador

That Ola’s arrest is arbitrary, and a 90-day “preventative” detention is an outrageous measure outside of the context of terrorism, is obvious to everyone who knows him. But for those who don’t know him, who is to say Ola wasn’t involved in a sinister plot of some kind? Perhaps while he claims to care about data privacy, he only wants to protect his own data while exploiting the data of others for personal or political gain. How could anyone, even his friends, know he wasn’t engaged in criminal activity?

This is a big problem for activists and advocates who become victims of arbitrary detention and fabricated criminal charges around the world. Outsiders don’t have all the information, and the one person who does know what happened is in jail. Plus her story is suspect, because she has a motive to lie.

This is why our human rights norms around arbitrary arrest and detention are so important. The person arrested is not expected to prove her innocence--the burden is on the state to prove her guilt. If the state does not have sufficient evidence to detain a suspect, she must be released. If this were not the case, police could detain any person, for long periods of time, for no reason and with no consequences. None of us want to live in that world. Where there is racism and injustice, that world is not safe for people of color. That world is not safe for activists, human rights defenders, or frankly, anyone at all.

The upshot is that Ola deserves his day in court, in a timely manner, and that if the government keeps him locked up, it has to make a good case that he actually violated some law on the books.

But that’s not what’s happening for Ola. And let’s be clear: 90 days in jail while they mull over whether they’ll ever find any evidence is a long time. As someone who spent six months in federal prison in the US for civil disobedience, I can tell you that time moves very slowly when you’re incarcerated. It’s hard to describe the impact of being removed from your life for a week, or a month, or here, up to three months. Six months changed my life, and unlike Ola, I actually committed a crime and knew (more or less) what I was getting into. That this has been an extraordinary hardship is clear from his moving letters, which are well worth the read.

Condemnation of Ola’s arrest in the international community has been pretty unanimous, some having opined that his detention is really due to his friendship with Julian Assange, while others argue that it is his data privacy advocacy that is being penalized.

If you look at a case like Ola’s and think “I just don’t know what to think because I don’t have all the facts,” focus on this fact: Ola was arbitrarily detained, without any evidence that he committed a crime, for far longer than was necessary to ascertain his guilt or innocence. That he is innocent is important to me and probably to him, but as a point of process, his innocence is irrelevant. We need to fight for Ola’s freedom because his unfreedom poses a threat to all of us.

Whatever the true reason for his detention, it’s time for the government of Ecuador to comply with its international obligations and the requirements of its own laws. Liberal application of preventative detention is a human rights violation and a danger to democracy. And for what it’s worth, Ola’s cause is just--protecting our data is important for our own privacy, but also to protect our partner organizations and affected communities around the world who are often imprisoned and otherwise targeted for their important advocacy. And Ola, if you’re reading this, hang in there man. Hoping to see you soon in the free world.

Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and Legal Director for Corporate Accountability Lab.

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