-Op-Ed-

BOGOTA — Perhaps no case is more emblematic of the Ecuadoran government's particular brand of below-the-radar political repression than the jailing of Francisco Endara, a young man who had the gall five years ago of applauding during a protest against President Rafael Correa.

For that the judiciary convicted him last month of "terrorism." In Ecuador, it turns out, heckling or jeering at the president is a serious criminal offense. This is the kind of thing one might expect to find in a novel about the ruler of a banana republic, a caricature, it would seem, that Correa el Supremo isn't afraid to emulate.

The Ecuadoran president is vain and proud, but unlike his counterpart in Venezuela, Correa is no fool. His modus operandi for handling criticism is to be harsh enough to intimidate opponents but soft enough not to provoke an international outcry — repression lite — a trademark approach that is also highly efficient thanks to the complicity of courts, which Correa controls by appointing and dismissing judges with the same ease he does civil servants.

What's alarming here isn't just the perversion of democratic institutions, but also the huge power imbalance inherent in the president's ability and willingness to subject regular citizens to "juridical" persecutions. The case of Francisco Endara is both recent and exemplary.

Endara was sentenced Oct. 21 to an 18-month prison term for having clapped. He did that at a protest on Sept. 30, 2010, during a police strike in Quito, which the government characterized as an attempted coup.

Pardon for the Pope

A group of citizens had gathered outside the state television station ECTV to protest against the interruption of all private broadcasters, which were being forced at that moment to air only ECTV programs. In that way, the Correa administration created what was effectively a single national channel with which to repeatedly hammer home its version of events: that a coup was underway, police had kidnapped the president, and democracy was falling prey to a plot.

Some of the protesters smashed ECTV's glass doors. Francisco Endara was not one of them. With the building entrance now open, the crowd decided to take its protest into the premises. The young man sought to calm others down at this point, but did make the mistake of clapping while the crowd was denouncing the president.

The absurdity of the sentence speaks for itself. "It is necessary to point out in the case of Francisco Endara Raza that his presence does not correspond to that of an author or agitator, but of a pacifier. He did, however, take part in clapping at a particular moment," the text reads. "He thus publicly revealed his general agreement with the actions of that social group, for which reason his participation in the events fits the concept of complicity as an indirect and secondary collaborator."

The curious thing about these cases is that some of those convicted of terrorism and sabotage for entering ECTV were not arrested. Thanks to intervention by the Catholic Church, they were left free for almost a year, and given a presidential pardon on the occasion of Pope Francis' recent visit to Ecuador.

And so again, the repression went largely unnoticed by leading international rights bodies. Yet these young people suffered all the same. Legal proceedings made them prisoners in their countries, subjected them to enormous emotional pressure and forced them to spend all their savings on lawyers. They also live in fear that the state could still decide, when and if it sees fit, to jail them. Other government opponents will no doubt be extra careful, and the attention of the rest of the world will again be directed elsewhere.