Former President Rafael Correa went on trial before Ecuador’s highest court starting Monday on charges of campaign finance fraud and accepting millions of dollars in bribes.
Correa, 56, president for a decade through 2017, and 20 other defendants including former Vice President Jorge Glas, presidential legal adviser Alexis Mera and former Public Works Minister María de los Ángeles Duarte go before the National Court in a trial that’s expected to last several weeks. Any appeals of the verdict could extend to late 2020.
The former president, who will be tried in absentia as he’s currently living in Belgium with his wife, insists the trial is a witch hunt meant to end his career in politics ahead of next year’s elections. Barred from running for the top office due to term limits, Correa could still run for office as a legislator in the February 2021 nationwide vote, which would give him immunity from prosecution, if the campaign starts before the trial ends.
Fresh off weeks of violent street protests in October over austerity measures, Correa’s successor, President Lenin Moreno, is struggling to appease nervous bond investors and the International Monetary Fund as his poll numbers hover near 20%. A return by the ex-president, who led the country into default on US$ 3.2 billion of bonds in 2008, could dramatically alter the nation’s politics.
“The electoral process has one course with Correa and one without him, and that depends on the court,” said political scientist Santiago Basabe at FLACSO university in Quito.
The prosecution has charged that Correa ran his political party, Alianza PAIS, like a criminal organization, allegedly channeling millions in payoffs from private companies to illegally fill his campaign coffers.
Glas, vice president under both Correa and Moreno, is already serving a sentence for organizing a scheme to take bribes from Brazil’s Odebrecht SA. The construction giant in 2016 admitted to having set up a vast bribery network that doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to politicians in Latin America and Africa to win construction contracts.
Courts in Brazil, Panama and Peru have tried former presidents in connection with the scandal including Lula da Silva of Brazil and Panama’s Ricardo Martinet while four former Peruvian presidents have come under investigation.
Citing the political risk of resistance to reform and a heavy bond repayment schedule for the next administration in 2022, Moody’s Investors Service last week cut Ecuador’s credit rating deeper into junk, sparking a selloff.