MIAMI — A fish importer from Jacksonville, Fla., has been held in a prison in Ecuador without trial for nearly two years in what he says began as a campaign by FBI agents to pressure him into testifying against a suspected drug trafficker.
In the United States such punishment without due process of law would be a violation of constitutional rights. But James Williams is not in the United States. And US officials say they have no intention of interfering in the sovereign workings of the Ecuadoran justice system.
International law experts say Mr. Williams is stuck in a kind of constitutional twilight zone, where American drug agents working behind the scenes through Ecuadoran proxies could do almost anything they want to increase the pressure on an imprisoned US citizen.
"It comes down to this issue: Whether the US government can prompt foreign governments to do things that the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments [to the US Constitution] would forbid our government from doing," says Christopher Blakesley, a law professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "They think that now the way they can resolve all the constitutional problems they face is to get foreign countries to do their dirty work."
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and federal prosecutors deny any wrongdoing. They insist Williams's situation in Ecuador is the result of independent actions taken by Ecuadoran officials without US involvement. In a November 1997 letter to a member of Congress, DEA chief Thomas Constantine wrote in part: "The investigation itself was conducted unilaterally by the Ecuadoran National Police Narcotics Division."
Court documents tell a different story. A letter found in a court file by Williams's lawyer suggests the DEA requested the Williams investigation and his eventual arrest in Ecuador. And a State Department report acknowledges that the investigation was conducted with US assistance.
Mr. Constantine insists that the DEA letter was written simply in response to a request by Ecuadoran officials for information about Williams.
The case raises fundamental questions of how much due-process protection Williams should get. In 1957, the Supreme Court ruled that constitutional protections under the Bill of Rights apply when US citizens face US government law-enforcement action in foreign countries.
"When the government reaches out to punish a citizen who is abroad, the shield which the Bill of Rights and other parts of the Constitution provide to protect his life and liberty should not be stripped away just because he happens to be in another land," the ruling says in part.
Experts say the Williams case takes the issue into a new area - one the court hasn't addressed. "What rights does an American citizen have when a foreign jurisdiction has acted at the behest of the United States? The answer is none," says Wilmer Parker, a defense lawyer in Atlanta and a former federal prosecutor.
Origins of the case
Williams's ordeal began in April 1996, when he was contacted by FBI agents seeking his testimony. The agents told him that one of his fish suppliers in Colombia, Jos Castrillon, was a drug trafficker. They wanted Williams to testify against him.
Williams said that as far as he knew, Mr. Castrillon was a legitimate fish seller. He said he had no knowledge of drug trafficking or any other illegal operations.
The agents didn't believe him. Williams invited the agents to investigate his business, including the traceable wire transfers used in all his financial dealings with Castrillon. He turned over more than five boxes of business records, according to his lawyer.
By July 1996, Williams hadn't heard from the FBI and wanted to finish a pending project in Ecuador. His lawyer checked with the FBI and was told that the bureau had no objection to Williams traveling to Ecuador.
A month later, on Aug. 14, 1996, a DEA agent based in Ecuador wrote a letter to Ecuadoran counter-narcotics officials in which he identified James Williams and five other men as being members of a "narcotrafficking organization." The letter does not say Williams is a suspect, rather it says that investigations have "established" his membership in the criminal organization. No specific evidence is offered. The letter concludes with a request that Williams and the others be investigated "and steps be taken, as the case may require, for the purposes of disarming this international drug-trafficking organization."
When Williams arrived in Ecuador in September 1996, he assumed the FBI had investigated him and that he was free to continue conducting his fish business. But within days of his arrival, he was arrested by Ecuadoran narcotics policemen. He says he was interrogated for three days before anyone was allowed to see him.
Two weeks after his arrest, Williams's lawyer in the US, Isaac Mitrani, says he received a call from an FBI agent. The agent wondered if Williams was ready now to cooperate, and if so, federal agents could help him get out of prison in Ecuador. Williams refused, saying all he wanted to do was tell the truth.
Mr. Mitrani says the FBI called back a month later, this time saying that Panama would soon file charges against Williams, and if necessary, try him in absentia. If he was inclined to cooperate, now was the time to do it, the agent said, according to Mitrani. Charges were eventually filed in Panama against Williams, but in late June a Panamanian judge threw them out for lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, Williams remains imprisoned in Ecuador.
The DEA works closely with Ecuadoran antinarcotics officials. Human-rights workers familiar with the political situation say US officials actually helped draft Ecuador's tough antidrug law, which, for example, prohibits bail for anyone like Williams who is arrested in a narcotics case.
In addition, US drug agents are well aware of the conditions that an American or any other suspect would face once arrested in Ecuador. A US State Department human-rights report released earlier this year paints a sober picture:
* "The most fundamental human-rights abuse stems from shortcomings in the politicized, inefficient, and corrupt legal and judicial system. People are subject to arbitrary arrest; once incarcerated, they may wait years before being convicted or acquitted unless they pay bribes."
* "Those [judges] charged with determining the validity of detention often allowed frivolous charges to be brought, either because they were overworked or because the accuser bribed them. In many instances, the system was used as a means of harassment in civil cases in which one party sought to have the other arrested on criminal charges."
* "Police continue to physically mistreat suspects and prisoners, usually with impunity.... Victims reported that the police beat them, burned them with cigarettes, applied electric shocks, or threatened them psychologically."
Going it alone
Instead of cooperating with the FBI and accepting FBI help to get out of Ecuador, Williams attempted to fight back. He hired a lawyer in Ecuador. He set up a Web site to publicize his plight. His wife, Robin, appealed to members of Congress.
The campaign gained some momentum in Washington, but never got close to sparking oversight hearings in either the House or Senate judiciary committees. A further setback for Williams and his supporters came on June 1, when federal prosecutors in Tampa unsealed a superseding indictment of Castrillon that named Williams as a co-conspirator. The indictment says Williams acted as a cocaine smuggler, cocaine distributor, and money launderer. But it cites no specific illegal acts by Williams.
Prosecutors declined to discuss the evidence against Williams. There is no legal requirement that the evidence presented to the grand jury be disclosed in an indictment.
If he is convicted of the US conspiracy charges, Williams faces up to life in prison and $4 million in fines. In Ecuador, he faces roughly eight years in prison if convicted.
In an interview conducted by telephone from prison, Williams says he wants only one thing - the chance to defend himself in a US courtroom. He says he is confident that once a US jury hears all the evidence in his case, he will be acquitted. "All Robin and I have ever asked for is an opportunity to present the truth. It can't happen here [in Ecuador]. I will be condemned here without any proof or evidence," Williams says.
Williams says he believes he was indicted because his case was beginning to attract interest among some members of Congress. Federal prosecutors say his indictment was the decision of a federal grand jury.
At first, Williams says, he and his supporters welcomed the indictment because they thought he would be returned to the US to stand trial with Castrillon. But prosecutors in Tampa say that Williams must complete his Ecuador case before being returned to face the US charges.
As a result of his ordeal in Ecuador, Williams has been imprisoned since September 1996. He has lost his business, his life savings, and a significant portion of his extended family's life savings. He is yet to be arraigned in a US court of law.
"It is really some high-handed and pretty scary behavior on the part of the US government," says Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former police chief.
Williams's supporters say even if he ever gets his day in US court, he may be unable to pay for an effective defense.
"In my opinion they don't want me back in the United States right now because I don't know anything that would hurt Castrillon, and there is a good possibility that I might say something that could help Castrillon," Williams says.
"All we are asking is to bring him home and give him his right to constitutional protections and a fair trial," says Mr. Mitrani.