QUITO, Ecuador — A top court in Ecuador on Tuesday convicted Rafael Correa, the country’s former president, on corruption charges and sentenced him to eight years in prison, a blow to a charismatic yet divisive leader and his hopes to lead the nation again.
Correa, a socialist, was Ecuador’s president from 2007 to 2017, a time when left-wing leaders were ascendant in Latin America, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. That left-wing wave has since subsided.
The decision comes as Ecuador faces its most pressing public health crisis in recent memory, one of the worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus in Latin America.
The epidemic is straining the country’s political systems as well as its medical resources, as people clamor for help. In the city of Guayaquil, so many people have died that bodies are waiting in the streets for hours for collection.
Correa was among 20 people, including his vice president, Jorge Glas, accused of accepting $8 million in bribes in exchange for public contracts from 2012 and 2016. The former president left Ecuador three years ago, and his conviction, which he can appeal, leaves him subject to arrest if he returns.
In addition to the prison term, the court banned Correa, 57, from politics for 25 years.
The trial was closely watched in Ecuador, and the verdict is likely to affect not only a presidential election slated for next year but also the political landscape for years to come. Correa denied the charges, describing them as a form of political persecution intended to prevent him and his allies from running in future national elections.
After leaving office in 2017, he moved to Belgium and vowed to retire from politics, but he has since reversed course. Saying that he felt compelled to “take the fatherland back,” Correa has expressed interested in running for office in 2021, which his conviction, if it stands, would prevent.
“Correa is, paradoxically, the most popular and the most rejected political figure in Ecuador,” political analyst Rafael Balda said. His presence on the ballot would lift his political party, now known as Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana, but even his campaigning on its behalf would make a big difference, Balda said.
The case emerged from an investigation initially known as Arroz Verde, or Green Rice, after the name of the file found in an e-mail sent to a former aide to Correa. The file, revealed by online publication Mil Hojas, contained names, amounts, and dates of payments made by several companies and individuals to the campaigns of his party, prosecutors said.
During the trial, the prosecution accused Correa of creating a multitiered “criminal structure” that collected payoffs without its leaders having to ask for them directly.
Attorney General Diana Salazar, who prosecuted the case, asked the judges to impose the maximum eight-year sentence. She likened Correa’s tactics to those of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who did not deliver cocaine personally but set up a network designed to smuggle drugs.
Correa’s lawyers presented his formal defense in court. But the former president has been famously vocal and argumentative on social media since long before the practice was popular among some political leaders, and he offered his own commentary on the trial as it went on.
Minutes before the verdict was announced Tuesday, he wrote on Twitter that his political foes, including the current president, Lenín Moreno, “conduct the worst and fiercest political persecution in the region.”
An outsider who rose to power after a brief stint as economics minister, Correa brought together a coalition of workers, environmentalists, young people, and left-leaning organizations to back his first presidential bid.
Economic inequality declined during Correa’s tenure, but Ecuador grew polarized. His charisma and heavy investment in infrastructure lifted his popularity, but he was also accused of abuse of power and suppression of the news media.
During the first half of Correa’s tenure, Ecuador experienced an economic boom, which he credited to his government policies but his critics say was more the product of oil price increases. When prices fell, the economy foundered.
Correa was succeeded by Moreno, his vice president from 2007 to 2013. A few weeks after Moreno was inaugurated, their relationship soured.
The breaking point was the indictment, arrest, and conviction of Glas, a Correa loyalist who also served as vice president for Moreno, on corruption charges.