On June 6th, it will be 3 years since Dr. Rodríguez Echeverría’s appointment as Secretary General of the OAS, which took place in the General Assembly of the OAS held in Quito, when the 34 member countries elected him by acclamation. By virtue of the effort he made during his campaign, when he assumed the post the plan needed to remodel the organization was already defined. The goals of this plan for the OAS were to make it more effective in providing its services to strengthen democracy, preserve peace and human rights, promote human development, and attain multidimensional security. His experience as former President of the Republic of Costa Rica, 1998-2002, as well as his participation in international fora, and his professorial duties during the following two years in the Shapiro Chair at the Elliot School of International Affairs in George Washington University, all made him a candidate with an extraordinary preparation for the position.
However, little more than one month after he assumed the position, in the face of persecution from his own country, he decided to voluntarily resign and returned to prepare his defense.
- Although it is true that the curse of corruption affects many politicians, at all levels and in all five continents, during your term as President, you yourself instituted a program to combat corruption. Could you explain for us what motivated your resignation?
On September 30, 2004, José Antonio Lobo was questioned by the Office of the Attorney General of my country. Lobo confessed to having received two and one-half million dollars from Alcatel, after having approved the purchase of 400,000 cellular telephone connections by the ICE (Costa Rican public institution for telecoms and electric power), where he was a director. This person confessed his illegal actions and, in order to obtain privileges such as not going to prison, which he achieved, he implicated me in this affair. The day after this display took place I began meetings with the ambassadors from the member countries, who -- with the exception of the representative from my country -- were unanimous in recommending that there was not even the slightest possibility of considering a resignation from my position, since no formal accusation existed, much less a sentence.
I continued my labors as Secretary General, but after a trip to Haiti, and on my way to Grenada to attend to the losses from hurricane Ivan, I could see how some of the printed media in Costa Rica were dipping further into a campaign of lies against me. I understood that an action by the government of President Pacheco seeking my dismissal from office, which would have been very prolonged, would cause serious harm to my family, to Costa Rica, and to the OAS itself. I made the free decision to resign and return home to my country to defend myself before the courts of justice from an accusation that I believed, due to what the head of the Attorney General’s Office, the President of the Republic, and some of the printed media said, would be immediate, so that it would imply a possibility of defending myself without delay and clearing things up.
- What happened on your arrival at the capital’s airport Juan Santamaría, as well as the prearranged demonstrations aroused the world’s interest, since they took place in a democratic country, where human rights were supposedly protected. How could this happen and what caused it?
There was a conjunction of interests. A government whose public opinion rating was in free-fall, due to lack of decision and action, an Attorney General in search of popularity and exposure, media with a thirst for power, and other groups that were allied to them in a effort to grow by establishing a scapegoat. The Constitutional Chamber has already condemned the then acting Minister of Police and the Government for those illegal actions, which have caused such damage to the Rule of Law in my country.
- More than two and one-half years have passed since your return to the country, the fair trial you sought has not taken place. How does the Costa Rican justice system work?
More than two years, seven months, and 20 days have gone by since my voluntary return to the country and the Attorney General’s Office has not completed its investigation. In what was said to be a case that would quickly go before the courts, neither accusation nor dismissal have been handed down. Unfortunately, in 1996, in an effort to control delinquency, a new code of criminal procedures was approved that eliminates the checks and balances of due process. There are no longer time limits on the investigations leading to court, so each day justice is slower and less fulfilled. Previously, there was one year to prepare the investigation and at the end of that term, either discontinuance or an accusation had to be handed down, or an extraordinary extension of one year would be granted in the event that new evidence appeared. Today, the prosecutors may maintain their persecution for years without a resolution, and the worst aspect is that they may apply precautionary measures for extremely long periods, including preventive imprisonment, which has become the norm, contrary to due process. The direction of the investigation and handling of the dossiers has been handed over to the prosecution, and this has broken the equilibrium between the parties in a criminal process. Testimonies where allowed to persons who have committed a crime to become star witnesses for the prosecution. There declarations are not grounded in the search for the truth, but to obtain advantages for themselves, including not going to prison. In the “megacourts”, the incorrectly titled “guarantee judges” resolve partial aspects of a case under investigation without even seeing the dossier. With the system of abbreviated process, which implies accepting the charges to obtain a reduction by one-third in the lesser sentence, individuals with an already long stay in preventive imprisonment are being condemned without a debate before a judge, because they find this route as the most expedite and secure way of getting out of prison. Many individuals, desperate from their long prison stays, the lack of procedural guarantees, and the difficulty of obtaining an adequate defense, prefer to renounce the defense of their innocence in order to end a process that is fully loaded in favor of the prosecution.
- There is another ex-president presumably accused of receiving funds from Alcatel as well, but he can move freely and give conferences in different countries except his own. What could have caused the difference in treatment between the two ex-presidents accused of receiving funds from the same firm?
One of the lessons that I have learned best through all this tribulation that I have been living with my family is not to pronounce a verdict without being a judge and having in-depth knowledge of the facts.
- Where do the accusations against you come from and what are they based on?
Other than Lobo’s accusations to obtain his personal advantages, I am not aware of anything that incriminates me. I have not discussed the elements of the case under investigation in the communications media, since the code of criminal procedures prohibits that. Of course my accusers have not respected that prohibition, as has been clarified by the investigations carried out by Inspección Judicial (the internal review board for the Judicial Branch). But I do respect the Rule of Law and due process, as is my duty.
- In the world’s eye, you were imprisoned, charges were published against you, but as far as we know there was no sentence or even a formal accusation. What is the legal value of everything that happened? Could there be any political motivation?
I have no doubt that here are political interests in movement behind this Roman circus of infamy and pain.
- In the face of everything that has been openly and undeniably expressed, how is it that you are not still in prison? Wasn’t there any legal evidence or backing for the accusations that put you in prison?
The question should be, rather: How is it possible that after almost 1000 days I haven’t been accused of anything? That I was jailed for five months and placed under house arrest another seven months, and that I have had my personal freedoms restricted for almost 32 months? How can anyone justify this persecution that prompted me to renounce, by my own free will, the position for which I had been chosen by the 34 active member countries of the OAS?
- Could you then have mounted your defense from your position as Secretary General of the OAS?
This is what the ambassadors on the Permanent Council of the OAS recommended with great wisdom; I would still be in my position and I would have been accused of nothing.
- Recently, in your own country the news was published that you won an appeal for Constitutional Protection due to the false accusations against you. What influence might this have in your case? Is there penalization for denigrating the presumed innocence and good character of a person?
In my case, in Costa Rica there has been no respect for either my situation of innocence, due process, or my freedoms. The worst part of all this is that in spite of the changes in the code of criminal procedure and the way the Attorney General has managed the Office of the Attorney General, these offenses against the Rule of Law occur, and at the same time delinquency has increased, while the percentage of criminal cases reaching sentencing has declined.
In order to at least partially have my voice heard through the right of response, I have won three appeals for Constitutional Protection against La Nación and one against Canal 7 for the evident distortions of the facts that they have committed, and because they have reached the extreme of pretending to ignore or invalidate my constitutional right to respond to the falsehoods that they have disseminated.
- What do you expect from the justice system in your own country? Will you have to have recourse to international bodies?
I trust the Costa Rican courts will know how to make the Rule of Law and the most elemental human rights prevail. My greatest concern is that the handling by the Attorney General’s office and the new code of procedures may have taken away power from the justices and might have weakened the dignity of the judiciary. Now, condemnation is achieved by showmanship, spectacle, the circus mounted by the Attorney General, the Government, and some of the communications media. And, of course, as was indicated several years ago by the renowned French intellectual Alain Minc, in these conditions, “a public incrimination is equivalent to a trial. The presumption of innocence disappears ... the first trial, that of public opinion, is always equivalent to a condemnation ... the finality is to advise by the best means possible that in the popular mind, the proceedings are the equivalent of an incrimination”.