How to destroy a judicial system in three easy steps

How to destroy a judicial system in three easy steps

The Organization of American States (OAS) just held its 42nd general assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia. During the general assembly, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, in a renewed attack against freedom of the press, sought to block the release the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) report of press freedom in the Americas.

Freedom of speech is not the only right under fire from Ecuador’s leader. For years, Rafael Correa has used all available government resources to concentrate governmental power in his hands. The result has been to hide crimes committed by him or his inner circle. Every time he attacks a journalist, nationalizes a TV station, or leaves unpunished people engaged in drug trafficking, Correa does so knowing that he manipulates the judicial system and intimidates his country’s media.

Astoundingly, not long ago Correa said this on television: "The president of therRepublic is not only the head of the executive, but the head of all the Ecuadorian state, and the Ecuadorian state is the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the electoral system, the state comptroller… [and every other major function of the government]." Correa’s strategy has been described by Ecuadorian constitutional lawyers as a "de facto coup d’état."

As an example, in May 2011, President Correa called for a referendum to restructure the Supreme Court. Correa’s purpose was to dominate the court and the result of the referendum was the replacement of the system through which judges were appointed with a new system controlled by the president through the following mechanism: a new "judicial council" was established, composed of three members, one from the executive, one from congress (where Correa has a majority), and a third from the comptroller’s branch — which also reports to the president.  

Correa wasted no time: The new Council has already appointed all twenty-one new judges to the Supreme Court. To no one’s surprise, fourteen of the new judges have been former Correa officials, relatives of current cabinet ministers, or peopble involved in controversial, pro-Correa judicial decisions. One of the latter, for example, is Wilson Merino, who as a lower court judge sided with President Correa in a sham defamation lawsuit launched by Correa against the newspaper El Universo. Merino not only ruled for Correa but awarded the president $40 million dollars in "damages." This sentence was later "forgiven" by Correa due to international criticism by international press organizations and the very Inter-American Human Rights Commission that Correa now wants to silence.

As a result of his sycophantic ruling, Merino was appointed to the Supreme Court. This was only possible because Correa shamelessly manipulates the judicial appointments process. This process establishes a series of requirements, qualifications, and tests that the candidates are required to pass in order to be selected. Wilson Merino did not meet the minimum qualifications, but since the three members of the judicial appointments council respond to Correa, Merino’s final score was artificially increased, giving him the necessary points for appointment to the Supreme Court, as the president wished.

Freedom-loving Ecuadoreans, however, have not remained silent. Opposition congressmen such as Andres Paez have denounced the executive’s manipulation of the judicial appointments system. Congressman Paez has identified at least seven additional judges that have been appointed by similar deceit. President Correa is now openly harassing Congressman Paez due to his public accusations. 

An international committee led by former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon oversaw the appointment process. Judge Garzon is expected to release a final report shortly concerning the process’ transparency and legitimacy. Several members of Ecuador’s national assembly have officially advised Mr. Garzon of additional cases of fraud and manipulation.

Correa is attempting to destroy the Ecuadorian judiciary system in three steps. First, he restructured the judicial appointment system in order to control it. Second, by using his control to designate his subordinates, such as Wilson Merino, to the Supreme Court. The third step is under way, and consists of legitimizing the process internationally. The success or failure of Correa’s plan depends on Mr. Garzon’s forthcoming oversight report and on the international reaction to this scheme. For the sake of Ecuador’s liberties, it is necessary that defenders of democracy around the world raise their voices for freedom in Ecuador and that Mr. Garzon teach Correa the difference between representative democracy and autocracy.

Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @ottoreich

Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @ezequielvazquez