Swedish programmer Ola Bini persecuted by the Ecuadorian justice with little evidence. Amnesty International asks a fair trial

by ARTURO DI CORINTO

Ola Bini by Gianluca Costantini

OLA BINI is a Swedish human rights activist who has lived in Ecuador since 2013 where he works developing security software. With his work he has been defending the right to privacy for journalists and activists, helping them to share information and collect evidence in a secure manner while avoiding illegal government surveillance. Ola Bini was arrested in April. Accused of computer systems violation and conspiracy, he was unjustly arrested and detained. Now, at the end of investigation, and without evidence, he is accused of other imprecise crimes.

His story alerted the international free software community and cyber security experts around the world so much that Amnesty International intervened harshly denouncing the violation of its rights by the authorities. As Fernanda Doz Costa, deputy director of Amnesty International said, “in a country where attacks on human rights defenders often go unpunished, unfounded accusations against them are immediately investigated”.

The story of the programmer is exemplary. The Swede, a digital rights activist who created new tools to guarantee website security with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, founded the Center for Digital Autonomy in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, with the aim of putting in the hands of of citizens, easy-to-use privacy tools, making local authorities nervous.

The arrest

Accused outside the courts of having helped to divulge the off-shore bank accounts of extreme right-wing president Lenin Moreno, in league with Wikileaks and Julian Assange, Ola Bini was arrested on 11 April 2019 after the conference in which the former minister of the Interior María Paula Romo announced the country’s decision to remove Assange’s status as a political refugee, confusing the Swedish activist with alleged Russian hackers who wanted to destabilize the government in league with Venezuela. Arrested at Quito airport, without a warrant, Bini, didn’t have the possibility of having a translator, of communicating with the outside, of calling a lawyer was denied. Not even the Swedish embassy was informed of his incarceration. On April 16, at a public event in Washington, DC, President Moreno, to show the political turning point with respect to the leftist government that had protected Julian Assange in his embassy in London, had said that Bini was “responsible for having hacked government accounts and telephone systems “.

Eventually, after two and a half months, on June 20, the court, however, ordered his release from prison, recognizing that his arbitrary detention had violated his rights to personal freedom and due process. Contacted by the italian newspaper La Repubblica, Carlo Mendoza of Amnesty International confirmed that Bini now “is on probation, cannot leave the country and must report to the authorities every week.” Not being able to prove the cyber attack on August 1, the authorities accused him of tax evasion.

International mobilization

For many observers, Ola Bini’s is more a political case than a criminal affair and, according to Amnesty, contributes to creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among those who defend digital rights and privacy in Ecuador. Therefore the human rights organization calls for a fair trial of the programmer. Waiting to have it, however, on August 17 the Ecuadorian press close to the government spread some elusive evidence against him, in particular the photograph of the screen of a Telnet connection made by Bini to a government server where, however, the accused never entered , stopping at his entrance as do all ethical hackers in front of an open gate where it says ‘Forbidden to enter’, before notifying the competent authorities. Which is what Bini tried to do by contacting Ricardo Arguello, a well-known figure in the Ecuadorian free software community, as an intermediary. Yet that has not penetrated the server you can clearly see from the screen arrived — no one knows how — in the editorial offices.

On August 26, the prosecutor asked to reformulate the charges against him as the prosecutor was unable to prove the alleged attack on computer systems. Using the words of his lawyer, Carlos Soria, the international support group in his favor gathered under the hashtag #FreeOlaBini stated that it is “A desperate and illegal measure, five days before the end of the investigation. An exemplary case on how to violate the Constitution and human rights “. The case of Bini is not an isolated case.

It is the problem of all the security researchers they carry out a vital role in correcting the defects of software and apps that we use every day and that, in the context of their work, discover them and communicate them to companies and governments, a civic duty that governments still confuse with software piracy.

Originally published in Italian by La Repubblica here: https://www.repubblica.it/tecnologia/sicurezza/2019/08/28/news/i_cinque_mesi_da_incubo_dell_hacker_che_difende_i_diritti_umani-234553117/

Teacher, journalist, hacktivist. Privacy advocate, copyright critic, free software fan, cybersecurity curious.

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