Ecuador Detains a Friend of Assange. Critics Say It’s Guilt by Association.
QUITO, Ecuador — Just hours after the British police dragged the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, the police in Ecuador made an arrest they suggested was related and involved the nation’s security.
But in the days since, the arrest has drawn a wave of protest from human rights activists and digital security advocates who say there is no evidence yet of a crime — only that of guilt by association.
The man arrested, Ola Bini, a Swedish cybersecurity expert and digital privacy advocate, was detained April 11 on charges that he had attacked computer systems in the country.
As evidence, prosecutors pointed to the laptops, iPads, iPods, encrypted USB sticks and credit cards they found when they searched Mr. Bini’s home and possessions. They noted that Mr. Bini traveled often and had spent more than $230,000 in internet services over the past five years.
Ecuador’s officials particularly cited Mr. Bini’s contacts with Mr. Assange, who faces extradition to the United States on charges of conspiring to hack an American government computer to obtain national security information.
Last week, President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador said that Mr. Bini was one of “many hackers” who had visited Mr. Assange at the country’s embassy in London, where the WikiLeaks founder had sought refuge. “Probably to receive instructions,” Mr. Moreno added.
But as news of the detention has spread, human rights and digital security advocates have begun to question the grounds for the detention, arguing that Mr. Bini, 36, worked to prevent illegal access to private information.
Mr. Bini “is a highly respected expert in digital security and cryptography and is recognized for major contributions in the field,” Article 19 said in a statement. David Kaye, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said that nothing revealed so far connects Mr. Bini to any crime.
Danny O’Brien, the international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Mr. Bini’s work had helped build a safer internet. The evidence that Ecuadorean authorities presented was simply “the sort equipment you have when you work in those sort of projects,” he said.
“People contributing their free time to protect internet users have their skills and their lifestyle used against them,” Mr. O’Brien said, a point of recurring concern among human rights advocates.
Mr. Bini was arrested at the international airport in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, on his way to Japan to take part in a martial arts program, said his girlfriend, Sofia Celi. Later, government officials went on television to applaud the arrest — and mention his visits to Mr. Assange.
The minister of interior, María Paula Romo, said the government was trying to prevent Ecuador from turning into a center for digital “espionage and piracy.” Ms. Romo said she could not comment on the evidence against Mr. Bini, but she, too, noted that he had visited Mr. Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy “at least a dozen times.”
Mr. Bini’s lawyers say the detention is unlawful. They say he was denied access to lawyers for 17 hours, was not informed of the charges against him, and was not offered a translator, as required by local laws. His lawyers said they have been harassed and threatened by the police.
Mr. Bini, who was not granted bail, will remain in custody for 90 days while Ecuadorean prosecutors build a case against him.
Mr. Bini moved to Ecuador in 2013, when he was working as a consultant for ThoughtWorks, a technology company based in Chicago. The Ecuadorean government had contracted with the company to consult on a new law governing software development.
He had joined the company around 2008, and when ThoughtWorks started offering cybersecurity consultancies, Mr. Bini focused on that area, said Ronaldo Ferraz, who was ThoughtWorks’ manager for Latin America and Africa at the time and oversaw Mr. Bini’s work.
Mr. Bini, he said, is being accused of doing “the very same things he protected people against,” and that the idea of Mr. Bini illegally accessing private information “runs contrary to everything he believes.”
Two weeks after Mr. Bini’s arrival in Ecuador, he gave an address titled “Ecuador as a Privacy Paradise” at a technology event hosted by a state university, during which he expressed concern about governments’ use of technology to monitor citizens.
After his arrest, Mr. Bini’s parents flew to Ecuador and gave a news conference denying their son was involved in wrongdoing and saying that his friendship with Mr. Assange was not enough to incriminate him.
Mr. Bini’s girlfriend, Ms. Celi, is a coder herself and has written academic papers with him on cryptography. She said there seemed to be a lack of understanding about the work Mr. Bini did, and what “cryptographic and privacy-preserving tools actually mean.”
In a note handed to his parents while they visited him in prison, Mr. Bini offered his thanks for the support he is receiving.
“I appreciate it more than I can say,” he wrote. “If Ecuador can do this, so can others.”