A court in Ecuador has sentenced former President Jamil Mahuad in absentia to 12 years in jail for embezzlement. The ruling comes two days after Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest. Mahuad denies any wrongdoing.
Mahuad fled to the United States in 2000 after he was ousted from office.
He was accused of ordering banks to close for several days and freezing the accounts of ordinary citizens to protect the interests of bankers associated with him. The decision, taken in March 1999, came during a serious economic crisis in which thousands of Ecuadorians lost their savings.
Ecuador was struggling at the time with high inflation, a devalued currency and historically low prices for oil, its main export. Mahuad had been in office for less than a year when he was forced out.
“The crime committed by the accused caused huge social turmoil,” Judge Ximena Vintimilla said in her ruling. “Its consequences are still being felt by Ecuadorean society to this day,” she added.
On Tuesday, Interpol issued an international warrant for Mahuad’s arrest. Interpol had earlier refused Ecuador’s request for a warrant, saying it was concerned that the charges were based on political, not criminal, issues. After reviewing the case again, it decided the charges were legitimate.
Mahuad maintains that the case against him is politically charged and accused the left-wing government of President Rafael Correa of meddling in the judiciary system. “The whole world knows the current situation faced by Ecuador’s legal system and its role in the persecution of journalists and critics of the government,” he said in a statement.
The Ecuadorean government rejects the allegations. “There’s no political persecution here. What Ecuadorean justice seeks is the punishment of common criminal acts,” Interior Minister Jose Serrano told reporters on Tuesday.
Mahuad’s supporters say he should be remembered for his battle to save the country’s economy, which including changing the currency to the U.S. dollar, and for signing a peace treaty with Peru. The two countries had a brief border conflict in 1995 and were on the brink of a new war when Mahuad took office in 1998. The decision led to Mahuad and his Peruvian counterpart, Alberto Fujimori, being nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
On Friday, Harvard University said it is reviewing its relationaship with Mahuad. Mahuad has been serving as an adjunct professor and researcher at the university for several years.
Aspokesman for the Harvard Kennedy Business School said that a review of Mahuad’s status is underway. “We are currently evaluating our options with respect to his role in future programs ,” the spokesman said.