(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

One prisoner of conscience was detained for four weeks. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported. Five "disappearances" and at least six extrajudicial executions were reported. The authorities failed to clarify and bring to justice those responsible for past human rights violations.

In February, following a general strike against the government's economic policies in which police reportedly shot dead a student, the National Congress removed President Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz from office on grounds of his "mental incapacity". Vice-President Rosalía Arteaga assumed the presidency, but a week later Fabián Alarcón Rivera, President of the National Congress, was sworn in as interim President.

In January the National Congress approved a law regulating the work of Ecuador's first ever Defensoría del Pueblo, Office of the Ombudsman, and in April an Ombudsman was appointed to head the Office (see Amnesty International Report 1997). However, in June the Ombudsman resigned in protest at Congress' decision to end his four-year term of office in August 1998 and because the authorities had not made sufficient resources available for the Office to be effective. By the end of the year the Ombudsman had not been replaced.

In May the government held a national plebiscite in which the electorate ratified the naming of Fabián Alarcón as interim President and approved the establishment of a National Assembly and the "depoliticization of the administration of justice". In December the 70-seat National Assembly, elected in November, initiated its deliberations on reforming the Constitution.

In November the Constitutional Tribunal decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults by removing Article 516 of Ecuador's Criminal Code, on the grounds that the Article contravened the Constitution.

In April the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (iachr) published a report on the human rights situation in Ecuador. The iachr acknowledged steps taken by the authorities to strengthen the protection of human rights but expressed concern that the authorities were failing to comply with certain standards enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights. In November the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador had violated the rights of Rafaél Iván Suárez Romero in contravention of the Convention. The Court concluded, among other things, that Rafaél Suárez had been arbitrarily detained and held incommunicado for 36 days, was denied a fair trial and judicial protection, and was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The Court had not opened trial proceedings on the Consuelo Benavides case by the end of the year (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

Prisoner of conscience Diego Ordóñez Ortiz, Secretary General of the National Union of Workers of the Ecuadorian Institute of Social Security, was detained in Quito, the capital, in September. He had been arrested following allegations that a strike led by him and several other trade union activists infringed articles in the Criminal Code relating to the halting of public services. He was released after four weeks in detention following a successful petition to the High Court. However, the judge ruled that the case file on Diego Ordóñez Ortiz be kept open pending further investigations into the accusations against him

Cases of torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported. In March Aníbal Aguas, a merchant, died while in police custody in the town of Machala, province of Los Ríos. According to a police report, Aníbal Aguas died as a result of knocking his head against a patrol car as he was being placed in the back seat. However, relatives claimed he died after being driven away and tortured. A civilian examining judge initially ordered the detention of four policemen implicated in his death, but later released three of them and referred the case to a police court. A police examining judge then ordered the release of the fourth policeman. A petition filed before the Constitutional Tribunal to have the case transferred back into the jurisdiction of the civilian courts remained pending at the end of year.

In March armed police entered the García Moreno Prison in Quito and assaulted several inmates using sticks and pipes. The authorities claimed the police were responding to a prison uprising. However, the prisoners claimed the incursion and abuses occurred after they started a peaceful hunger-strike

Five men reportedly "disappeared" following detention. Ángel Heriberto Hinojosa "disappeared" in January following his abduction near Quito by a uniformed policeman and two civilians. He was bundled into a red car with no number plates. The incident was witnessed by a friend of the victim who managed to escape. In May Marco Bienvenida Palma was reportedly detained in the city of Manta, Manabí province, by military intelligence agents investigating the sale of weapons. His family claimed to have received information that he was later seen in the Ministry of Defence. Jeremías Ramírez, a Colombian national, and two unidentified friends "disappeared" after being detained in Quito in July by men who identified themselves as members of the police. Following the filing of successful habeas corpus petitions, the municipal authorities ordered the immediate release of Marco Bienvenida Palma and Jeremías Ramírez. However, the Secretariat of the Armed Forces and the police denied having detained them. The whereabouts of all five men remained unknown at the end of the year.

At least six men were reported to have been extrajudicially executed. In one incident, the authorities initially claimed that Vicente Vargas, Carlos Obregón and Juan Jiménez were shot dead by police while attempting to escape from a prison in the city of Guayaquil in January. However, after a video was broadcast on national television showing the police capturing the fugitives, human rights defenders claimed all three were extrajudicially executed. Four policemen were investigated by a civilian court on charges of homicide, but subsequently the case was transferred into the jurisdiction of a police court. By the end of the year those responsible for these killings, and that of José Miguel Manrique Morales, whose case was also transferred into the jurisdiction of the police courts (see Amnesty International Report 1997), had not been convicted.

Hundreds of cases of human rights violations documented in previous years remained unresolved and those responsible were not brought to justice. The Truth and Justice Commission and the congressional commission, mandated in September 1996 with investigating past human rights violations, had ceased functioning by the end of President Bucaram's administration. The failure of both commissions to publish any findings consolidated the impunity surrounding hundreds of cases of torture, "disappearances" and killings (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

Amnesty International appealed to the authorities, including the Ministers of Government and Police and of Foreign Affairs, to clarify the whereabouts of those reported to have "disappeared". The organization did not receive replies to any of these appeals

In March Amnesty International called on the authorities to conduct an independent inquiry into allegations that the police had assaulted prisoners in the

García Moreno Prison, and to make the findings public. The authorities replied in April claiming that an inquiry had been conducted which indicated that the prisoners had not been ill-treated. However, the report of the inquiry was not made public. In August the organization publicly stated that referring the case of the death in custody of Aníbal Aguas to a police court ran counter to a recommendation made to the Government of Ecuador by the iachr that such cases be "submitted to the ordinary courts". In October Amnesty International called for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoner of conscience Diego Ordóñez Ortiz.

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