IACHR

Press Release

Special Follow-Up Team on the Investigations Regarding the Team of Journalists from El Comercio Newspaper Finishes the First Stage in Its Work plan and Reports on the Challenges the Investigation is Facing

November 1, 2018

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María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9000
mrivero@oas.org

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Washington, D.C. - Seven months after the killings of the three journalists from Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra, which took place on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the IACHR Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, in the context of the Special Follow-Up Team regarding this matter, reports on progress on its work plan and the challenges that the investigations had encountered in each of the countries involved.

On April 12, 2018, the IACHR granted a precautionary measure on the matter and asked the two states to report on the actions they were taking to investigate into these events. After the journalists’ deaths were known, the IACHR decided to set up a Special Follow-Up Team (ESE, for its acronym in Spanish) as part of the precautionary measure in order to guarantee compliance with the measure. The creation of ESE was decided by the IACHR in attention to the request of the Ecuadorian State and taking into account the request of the families of the victims. Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño is heading the follow-up team, with support from the Executive Secretary of the IACHR, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the technical team from the precautionary measures section.

The ESE was formed with the objective of "continuing the follow-up of the component of investigating the facts that gave rise to the adoption of the precautionary measures granted MC-309-18," for which the specific objectives are: Provide technical advice and monitoring of the progress of the investigation and punishment of those responsible for the kidnapping and murder of the journalists; provide technical advice and monitoring for the search, prompt identification and delivery of the bodies of the victims; accompany the comprehensive care of victims and their families, and keep them informed of the process; provide technical advice and monitoring of compliance with State obligations regarding access to information and the truth about what happened to Ecuadorian society, as well as to family members; and to advise and support the State in the adoption of structural measures and avoid the repetition of similar events.

The ESE and the States of Ecuador and Colombia agreed on a work plan, in consultation with the families and their representatives. The IACHR also wishes to acknowledge and express its gratitude for the financial contribution made by the Ecuadorian state to finance ESE’s operations and implement the work plan mentioned above. Complying with its mandate, the ESE held working meetings with stakeholders at IACHR headquarters on June 15, 2018. The ESE and the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression also made a working visit to Ecuador between July 24 and 27, 2018. The ESE then visited Colombia from September 24 to 26, 2018, as has been established in the work plan agreed upon with the State. The IACHR wishes to thank both States and the civil society organizations monitoring the process for their assistance and cooperation during the two visits.

The aim of the visits was to meet with various state entities to ascertain what progress had been made on the investigations into the kidnapping and murder of the team of journalists from El Comercio newspaper and to obtain the information necessary for ESE to comply with its mandate. To achieve this, the IACHR team held working meetings and was granted access to information provided by the two countries’ attorney generals’ offices, especially the prosecutors in charge of the investigation; domestic security forces and armed forces involved in combating the organized armed groups that are operating on the border between the two countries; the crisis response team in Ecuador that is responsible for handling kidnappings; teams from both countries’ ministries of foreign affairs; and journalists and civil society organizations who are involved in monitoring the case and protecting journalists. In accordance with the ESE’s mandate, meetings were held with representatives of victims’ families. The IACHR wishes to thank the Governments of Colombia and Ecuador for their openness and predisposition, as well as for the support offered by both countries for the implementation of the ESE’s agenda, particularly the authorities and representatives that took part in meetings and contributed valuable information that helped the ESE comply with its mandate.

Since the installation of the ESE, the IACHR has requested information from Colombia and Ecuador to ensure that it has sufficient, appropriate and needed information from the two States to be able to comply with its mandate.

In this regard, the ESE requests that Ecuadorian authorities coordinate with it more closely to ensure that the information required that is pending examination can be provided in a prompt and opportune manner. This will help the parties to achieve the objectives set out in the work plan approved by the two States. The Ecuadorian State has facilitated access to documents and information; notwithstanding, certain sections of the files that the ESE considers relevant are still pending examination. The IACHR has requested information from the State of Ecuador on August 9 and 30 and September 24, in which it suggested that certain files and information be provided in addition to those that have already been supplied and reviewed during this investigation. The State has indicated that according to its domestic norms, it would require authorization from the judiciary and that it had taken steps to obtain it; and it has informed that in accordance with its legislation, once the reserved stage of the investigation has been completed, the documentation related to the investigation will be made public. However, to date, the information in question has not been produced in its entirety. In this regard, the IACHR wishes to reiterate how important it is that all necessary steps be taken to enable the ESE to access the entire investigation files as soon as possible, if necessary by expediting coordination with the judicial authorities in order to authorize the attorney general’s office to provide the ESE with this information.

Progress and Monitoring of the Investigations

In compliance with the ESE’s objectives, particularly that of providing technical advice and monitoring the progress of the investigation and ensuring that those responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra are punished, the ESE has reviewed separately the processes that are being implemented in Ecuador and in Colombia.

The ESE has found that significant progress has been made by the Attorney General’s Office of Colombia, which has managed to capture and prosecute at least three of those responsible for these heinous crimes. The ESE also acknowledges that significant progress has been made toward ascertaining the truth of what took place during at least some parts of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the victims.

Regarding the investigation being carried out by the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Ecuador (FGE), the ESE has found that no satisfactory progress has been made in researching and linking those responsible to the process. It therefore observes that the FGE needs to strive to compile the evidence obtained from investigations into threats and attacks carried out by the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front, a dissident faction of the former FARC guerrilla movement, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia between September 2017 and April 2018.

Indeed, the ESE understands that the situation on the common border between Ecuador and Colombia after the peace process, which did not imply the total demobilization of the active armed groups in Colombia, constitutes the explanatory context of the attacks in San Lorenzo in the months prior to the kidnapping, as well as of the attack on an Ecuadorian Navy patrol by a dissident group of the former FARC guerrilla. According to available information, the attorney general’s office could take action in relation to these earlier events in order to establish the evidentiary framework necessary to enable those responsible for planning and perpetrating the kidnapping and murder of the team of journalists from El Comercio to be identified.

Secondly, the ESE recommends that the FGE include a new line of investigation to assess the behavior and possible responsibilities of the State agents who had the duty to guarantee the security of the team of journalists. The IACHR and the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression wish to remind the States that they have an obligation under international law to establish specific measures to protect journalists and media workers who are at imminent risk.

The right of victims’ families to know the truth of events is inextricably linked to investigative authorities’ duty to examine all aspects of the case. This explains the need to act on this line of investigation so as to establish how was the authorization for journalistic teams granted during the state of emergency that had been declared in that area; whether measures were taken to protect journalists, given the obvious public interest in the events taking place in the area, and whether such measures were sufficient to protect the journalists; and what recommendations they were given at the military checkpoint, among other things.

It was recommended that the FGE include investigative activities in its work plan in order to ascertain the motives for the kidnapping, in particular, whether this was specifically motivated by the fact that the victims were journalists. To do so, it is important to investigate further into the work these journalists were engaged in and ascertain whether this affected or might have affected the operations of the dissident group in question or other individuals involved in their illegal activities, which might ultimately open up another range of possibilities regarding the truth of events and those responsible for them.

The IACHR reiterates that the victims’ families have the right to know the circumstances and motives for the kidnapping. The IACHR’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression reminds that, when it comes to crimes against journalists, the States, by their obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights and other international standards, are obliged to act with due diligence in their investigations and to exhaust all lines of investigation that may be connected to the victims’ work as journalists.

To achieve these objectives, the FGE must urgently implement a series of technical tests on the evidence in its possession and analyze the results of wiretaps on the alleged perpetrators or others who performed different functions within the criminal organization, using appropriate maps. Similarly, the attorney general’s offices of both Ecuador and Colombia must exchange more information and evidence to complete their investigations so as to comply with the prosecution process and uncover the full truth of events.

Since the investigations carried out by Ecuador and Colombia point to the fact that the illegal armed group that is probably responsible for the kidnapping and murder of the team of journalists is made up of both Ecuadorian and Colombian citizens who operate in both countries, the ESE believes that it is vital to establish agile channels for communication and cooperation between the two countries’ attorney general’s offices.

Finally, the ESE wishes to act on the request of the victims’ relatives and representatives regarding the need to investigate into and obtain information on the actions taken by the States in relation to communications with the perpetrators while the three victims were being held captive, the negotiations that took place, the operations that were held during the captivity of the journalists by both States, either individually or together. The IACHR thanks and values the efforts of the Governments of Ecuador and Colombia to establish the truth of what happened in this matter.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 235/18