Habeas Corpus appeal annuls pre-trial detention against Ecuadorian journalist who disclosed confidential information on Chevron

Update (Nov 26): On Nov. 21, Judge Edgar Flores of the National Court of Justice accepted the Habeas Corpus appeal filed by the lawyers of Ecuadorian journalist Fernando Villavicencio, making ineffective the arrest warrant issued against him on Nov. 14 by Judge Jorge Blum.

After this measure, both Villavicencio and former Assemblyman Cléver Jiménez will not be able to be detained during the trial that they face for allegedly hacking e-mails from public officials and releasing confidential government information.

However, both will not be able to leave the country during the judicial process against them, and they must appear regularly before the judge.

Original (Nov. 17): Journalist and politician Fernando Villavicencio, accused of the crime of disclosing protected State information, is wanted by the authorities after his appeal for preventive custody was revoked on Nov. 14, according to Fundamedios.

The arrest warrant issued by judge of the National Court of Justice, Jorge Blum, overturned an appeal Judge Richard Villagómez granted to Villavicencio last week.

The case against both Villavicencio and ex-assemblyman Cléver Jiménez, of whom the journalist was advisor in the past, started in 2013. On Oct. 27, 2016, Blum issued the preventative detention order and reactivated the process, Fundamedios reported.

This case is related to the report that Villavicencio published in October 2014 on the Ecuadoran news site Plan V. In the article, he criticized the legal conflict between the government and U.S. company Chevron, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

According to the prosecutor's office, Jiménez and Villavicencio allegedly illegally intercepted information exchanged via e-mail between the legal secretary of the presidency and attorney general, and disseminated the information, Fundamedios reported.

According to Plan V, the Public Prosecutor determined that the information in question contained “the legal strategy of the Ecuadoran State regarding the proceedings against Chevron.”

However, Ramiro Román, one of Villavicencio’s lawyers, said that there is no evidence that a copy of the emails were obtained, so he described Judge Blum’s decision against his defendant as “legal barbarity,” Plan V reported.

Additionally, Focus Ecuador, the media outlet where Villavicencio is director, reported that in 2013, during the Christmas holiday of Dec. 26, police searched the journalist’s home without a valid court order.

According to the aforementioned media, the equipment, including electronics, allegedly confiscated by authorities contained information about irregularities in public procurement that Villavicencio had collected for future publications.

“If sent to prison, Fernando Villavicencio would be imprisoned without a trial on the basis of charges that violate international standards of free expression,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas.

Verónica Sarauz, the journalist’s wife, told CPJ: “There is a desire to silence Fernando as part of a government strategy to prevent further allegations of corruption from appearing, in addition to preventing Fernando from participating in the upcoming elections as a representative.”

On June 11, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa demanded that the Public Prosecutor expedite investigations against Jiménez and Villavicencio for alleged hacking and espionage of email of government officials, according to Ecuador’s state newspaper El Telégrafo.

According to CPJ, the publication of private communication is considered a crime by the new Ecuadoran penal code, in force since 2014.

The prosecution of journalists for publishing confidential information violates international standards in terms of freedom of expression, CPJ said, according to a statement issued by the Organization of American States and the United Nations in 2010.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.