An Ecuadorian journalist says police recently raided his home and stole thousands of documents involving alleged corruption by government officials in the latest attempt by the country’s leaders to silence the media.
Investigative journalist Fernando Villavicencio told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview that his house was raided in the middle of the night on Dec. 26 by armed police, prosecutors, and a cameraman. The police confiscated his computer that contained the documents and startled his wife and two young children, he said.
Villavicencio said the raid was an urgent action ordered by Alexis Mera, President Rafael Correa’s general counsel. He was accused of espionage and hacking the email accounts of both Mera and Correa, a charge he denied. He provided the Free Beacon with a copy of the notice.
Buzzfeed first reported on Villavicencio's plight on Sunday.
The house of opposition lawmaker Clever Jimenez was also raided and documents were seized.
Villavicencio accused Correa of colluding with the judiciary to review the files without "an open judicial case" against him.
"Violating every single democratic standard, four hours after the raid, the president already knew the content of my computer and he tweeted that he had found terrible things in my computer," he said. "How did the president know this if supposedly the computer should have been in control of the judiciary and not the executive power?"
Villavicencio said he was sentenced last week by an Ecuadorian judge to two years in prison and a $200,000 fine for a previous defamation lawsuit. The sentence was issued now "to cover up what really happened on the 26th," he said.
He is now appealing to human rights groups in New York City and Washington, D.C., to gain their support and help him seek asylum in the United States, if he decides that is the best option. His family is still in Ecuador, but he said he is hoping to bring them to America.
"If I go back to Ecuador now, I would go directly to prison," he said. "My family and I are in an extremely dangerous situation."
Correa’s government is notorious for arresting journalists who are critical of leaders and fining them large sums. A law passed by the government last year forbids the "deliberate omission of … topics of public interest" and "lynching by media."
Villavicencio said the documents that were provided to him and then seized by police involved ties between Ecuador’s state oil company PetroEcuador and its Chinese counterpart PetroChina.
Initial investigations conducted by Villavicencio in recent years about the two companies were also reviewed by Reuters last November. Reuters examined documents showing that PetroChina had signed contracts guaranteeing sales of Ecuadorian oil at below-market prices in exchange for billions of loans to Ecuador’s government.
However, Reuters found that less than 2 percent of Ecuador’s oil was shipped to China during part of last year. PetroChina instead acted as an intermediary and sold most of it to U.S. oil companies like Chevron and Exxon Mobil, Villavicencio said. Chinese oil trading firms were able to make billions off the transactions by selling the discounted oil at full market prices.
The Free Beacon previously reported that Ecuador’s government has been engaged in a contentious legal battle with Chevron over an $18 billion civil judgment that critics say is fraudulent. While Correa has publicly dipped his hand into an Ecuadorian oil field related to the suit and blamed pollution from it on Chevron, the Economist noted that PetroEcuador owns the field.
Villavicencio said the contracts between Ecuadorian and Chinese state oil companies are evidence of corruption and hypocrisy by Correa and his administration.
"On the one side you have Correa saying that Ecuadorians shouldn’t be buying refined oil products from Chevron," he said. "At the same time through this intermediation he’s selling his own oil to Chevron."
Additionally, Villavicencio said the "double standard" in Ecuador was again on display with the recent case of opposition politician Martha Roldos.
Roldos told the Associated Press last week that she believes someone either in the Ecuadorian government or allied with it stole emails and documents from her that included communications with the Open Society Foundation and National Endowment for Democracy. Roldos was inquiring the groups about funding for a new journalism project in the country, but the government-owned newspaper El Telegrafo published the documents in infographics and said the project would "strengthen the opposition to the Ecuadorian government."
Villavicencio said the allegations of hacking damage the credibility of Ecuador’s government and again make it look hypocritical. Correa has granted asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and once called him "a hero of freedom of expression."
"They protect Assange," he said. "They said good things about [NSA leaker Edward] Snowden. But at the same time they are treating me as a criminal and they are doing this thing with Ms. Roldos."
For now, Villavicencio said he is in limbo as he continues to meet with human rights groups in the United States.
"I cannot go back; the government knows what I know," he said. "Having information in a situation like this makes it extremely dangerous for me and my family."
The Ecuadorian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.