GUATEMALA CITY: Earlier this month, a Twitter user in Guatemala was arrested, jailed, and fined the equivalent of a year's salary for having posted a 96-character thought to Twitter. The tweet related to an ongoing political crisis in Guatemala sparked by allegations that president Álvaro Colom ordered the assassination of an attorney, and claims made by this attorney that government officials engaged in illegal, corrupt transactions through the country's largest bank.
Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez, or @jeanfer as he's known on Twitter (at left), has since been released from jail. He is under house arrest while the Guatemalan government pursues charges against him. Jean is an unlikely public figure: a shy, soft-spoken I.T. guy who studies systems engineering and loves books. He has since become something of a popular hero online, and Twitter itself has become a force in the country's current upheaval.
Guatemala's Supervisor of Banks, Édgar Barquín, wants Jean to face charges of up to 10 years in jail for "inciting financial panic" through the tweet in question. Barquín this week also proposed new restrictions on internet use in Guatemala — for instance, that people who use internet cafés be required to present national IDs ("cedulas") before logging on.
I interviewed @jeanfer this week, here in Guatemala. Among the details he shared: Guatemala's Ministry of Banks created a Twitter account to "follow" him, in the course of interrograting him at his home. And while he was in jail, he dreamed of Kafka, and wished he could turn himself into a cockroach, to escape. Jean's final words in the interview:
The point is that this case represents something we must not lose. Without freedom of opinions and speech, there is no democracy. I hope this case sets a precedent about freedom of thought.
I've left most of the interview intact, so it's long (+2000 words). Continued in entirety after the jump. Special thanks to @thevenemousone for assistance with translation.
@XENIJARDIN: How were you using Twitter, and who were you mostly communicating with on Twitter when all of this happened?
@JEANFER: I used to chat among a circle of Guatemalan friends in a book club I belong to, and others from the same social group who were interested in the web, and information technology.
@XENIJARDIN : Nearly all of your blog posts were about books, too. I remember thinking when i first saw your personal blog that you were clearly a person who loves reading books.
@JEANFER: With all my heart. I have a beautiful little library in my home. In my house, my study, my bathroom, even in my phone — every wall is covered in bookshelves. I read lots of different kinds — but historic novels are my favorite. I read biographies, poetry, history, theology…
@XENIJARDIN : You were one of many people in Guatemala who were talking about the political crisis on Twitter in that first week after the Rosenberg video was released.
@JEANFER: Yes, one of many.
@XENIJARDIN: And you posted this one fleeting thought about the crisis, and the bank. 96 characters. What happened?
@JEANFER: What happened was that these past days in Guatemala have been extremely turbulent. We have been trying to figure out what is going on, because we are worried about our country. I love Guatemala. So, we were exchanging the information we knew among our groups, with people we knew and were close to. We were all sharing fleeting thoughts as things were happening.
@JEANFER: That day in particular, May 12th, started with news of the MP (Public Ministry, government body charged with investigations) arriving at the bank (background here and here). My first tweet related to this matter is made at noon, after that happened. The only people following me were a small group of friends who understand that my tweet was not an incitation. I even used quotation marks, to specify that this was overheard dialogue.
If you notice, my tweet has three parts. "Primera acción real" (First real action) is the title I use to designate what is happening around the whole #escandalogt issue. This was the first real action that had taken place after Rosenberg's video surfaced. Second, "sacar el pisto de [redacted/bank's name]" (withdraw the money from [redacted/bank's name]) – is the quotation of what someone else is saying. And lastly, what I thought that first action meant to do: "quebrar al banco de los corruptos" (bankrupt the bank of the corrupt). Notice that I didn't mean that the bank or their officials are or were corrupt, but that maybe other people were infiltrating within the bank… I don't know. This was the opinion of many people in Guatemala.
[The officials who arrested me] took this information and claimed firstly, that I've said it at a public hearing; secondly, that this information is at anyone's reach; and lastly, that it is meant to be an incitation.
@XENIJARDIN : So at first, just a few friends would have seen this. But within a couple of days, anyone who was discussing the crisis was also retweeting it.
@JEANFER: Yes. When the online community finds out about what happened with me, they start retweeting this en masse — not on my request, since I could not communicate with the outside world [after I was detained]. It happened in a spontaneous way, and other people have amplified the message…
@XENIJARDIN: You're not a very public person, you're saying.
@JEANFER: Exactly. I am just not like that, in fact, I try to avoid situations like these.
@XENIJARDIN : When did the problems related to this tweet begin?
@JEANFER: It all starts on May 14th, when [the officers] arrive at my house with the search warrant.
I feel somewhat frightened by the number of policemen that arrived, but told them they may come inside, and search for whatever they need to. They ask me to show them where my computer is, and I take them to my bedroom. They ask me if I have a blog, and I answer that I do. They ask me if I wrote the comments, I look at them and say that I did, and then I try to explain. I tell them repeatedly that my tweets have no intention to incite.
They go and meet privately for a while, and they talk and talk, mentioning something about emails. They return and I try to explain once again that [the tweet] can only be seen if you decide to go to the Twitter site, create an account, and follow my account on Twitter…
@XENIJARDIN : Did they understand what Twitter was, as opposed to a blog?
@JEANFER: No. There are recorded declarations in which the attorney is outside of my house, explaining to the press that they have found evidence in my computer of mass emails I have sent that have damaged the bank's reputation. And actually, there ARE indeed people sending this kind of emails, condemning [redacted/bank's name] or Colom. I have received a couple myself, and I hate this kind of messages as they are nothing but spam. Every time a message of this kind gets into my inbox, I delete it immediately, as most people do.
@XENIJARDIN : Then what happened?
@JEANFER: I was taken into the Justice Court so my fingerprint records could be taken. I was there for at least two or three hours, without knowing what was going to happen. Some media started to come in, which is why there are pictures of me in the basement of the Justice Court. After a while, my mom and my sister arrived.
(Click for larger size. The Twitter account believed to have been created by agents of Guatemala's Ministry of Finance for the purpose of gathering evidence about @jeanfer's activities on Twitter)
@XENIJARDIN : Did the authorities take your computer, or copy information from your computer, before taking you into detention?
@JEANFER: No. They returned to their offices to create a twitter account (@ubag03), look for my Twitter account, follow me, and search my timeline of tweets to print and present them as evidence. This is why it took them 4-5 hours to return. Then, they take me directly to the Court to wait for my case to be heard by a Judge so a sentence can be made. As it is known publicly, that very same afternoon a Judge defined my current legal situation.
@XENIJARDIN : The judge determined that you were guilty of "inciting financial panic"?
@JEANFER: The Judge rules that I am to be subjected to a process, which means that firstly, the Public Ministry must investigate the case and secondly, that I am under house arrest. Then it means I am in confinement, and I cannot leave the country.
I am taken then to the "Preventivo" [the local Guatemalan prison], and placed temporarily before being put in sector one with other prisoners that night, on the 14th. Then, on the 15th, I was transported back to the Justice Court at around 7am and confined in a place along other prisoners to wait until the hearing happened, which did at 11:30am. My bail was paid with the help of a loan made by a local company, which now represents a debt for me. I signed all documents I need to in order to ensure my liberty, and thought I was going to go home, but instead I had to return to the prison one more time and wait, since the prison procedure states that prisoners can only be released after 11pm.
@XENIJARDIN : And you were handcuffed the entire time?
@JEANFER: Almost the whole time, yes.
@XENIJARDIN : So within a day of being arrested, you're taken before a judge, and he fines you the equivalent of about US $6,500?
@JEANFER: Yes. Since I didn't have the bail money right away I am taken into the local prison, where I have no clue of what is going on or what will happen with me, and I have no chance to speak to anyone.
@XENIJARDIN : Your employer eventually loaned the money so you could be released.
@JEANFER: Yes, a company whose name I would like to keep out of the public eye.
On May 15th, the day after, I was among the prisoners to be transported to the Justice Court. I was handcuffed, but I must say that there are very nice people everywhere and someone there helped loosen the handcuffs, because they were hurting me a lot when I had my hands behind my back for so long.
Once in Court, my lawyer arrived at 10am and I ask her about what is happening, and what are we going to do. She tells me about the loan. Then, I go upstairs, and there, I encounter my mother and sister, who embrace me when they see me once again, but cry when they see how tired I look. They cried and hugged me.
@XENIJARDIN : They were afraid for you.
@JEANFER: We are still afraid.
@XENIJARDIN: What happened after you were detained? How did you find out about all of the support for your case on Twitter?
@JEANFER: We all go to the fourth floor, and I find some friends that came to support me, and they hug me as well.
When I go up, there was a moment in which I was waiting to go into the hearing, and I'm just leaning on the wall.
I look next to me and I see a couple of guys with concerned faces. They come closer, and I suddenly recognize them as some of my Twitter friends, who say that they have found out about the whole situation and that they are supporting me, that there are 17 more people just like them downstairs.
I ask them (as a precaution to them) to not come up and be seen, but they all insist to stay and stick with me. This is when I began to feel extremely touched by all their actions.
When they told me they were staying, I felt so touched – I wanted to cry when I saw what they were doing. I hug them and thank them, and they say that it's not a problem, and that they will be taking turns to come upstairs in pairs, which they do until the time my hearing with the Judge began. About five of them stay for the hearing, and take pictures of the process.
When the Judge ruled his sentence, I was in shock. I could not believe it.
And then, I noticed other people's reactions in the courtroom – all the same as mine. After this, I go back to the prison as I mentioned earlier, spent the night, go back into the courthouse the next day, pay the bail, and go back once more to the prison as the procedure states. At 11pm on May 15th I am finally released. I leave the prison making several stops in various checkpoints, in which I have to answer questions about my felony, the Judge that gave the sentence, the courtroom that resolved the issue and the reason for my being released. I finally arrive home on May 16th at 1:15am.
@XENIJARDIN: What was it like when you came home? What were you feeling?
@JEANFER: I go back to my study, see my books, put on my glasses and thank God.
Although the nightmare is not over, I feel like one does when you leave the country for several weeks and miss your home. You miss your house, the familiar smells, the sound of your neighbor's dog, your window, air.
I didn't sleep. I stayed in my bed, a bed I have in my study, with the lights off and my eyes opened, enjoying this space I have.
When I was in prison, I saw a cockroach – I saw it crawl through the walls, come and go, sneak through the window's bars and leave. And I thought about Kafka's book, [Metamorphosis], and I wanted to be that cockroach.
@XENIJARDIN : What have the days since you came home — to serve house arrest — began been like for you personally?
@JEANFER: I don't sleep well. About three hours a day. I can't read anything that is not related to the legal case. I have the Eleanor Rigby book, unopened — before all of this happened, I was so excited I had finally obtained a copy.
When I work, I try to make a mental block and not think about all of this, and I work. But only for about four hours at a time. After that I lose focus.
@XENIJARDIN: Is there a book that this experience reminds you of?
@JEANFER: Humiliated and Insulted, by Dostoyevsky.
Now I try to live my life normally while we wait for the investigation by the Public Ministry to continue. A six-month period has been established for them to do so. We have presented a challenge with evidence, but they still have six months to search anything they want about me and use it against me in this case, in order to put me back into jail.
@XENIJARDIN: Why should people care what happens in your case?
@JEANFER: The point is that this case represents something we must not lose.
Without freedom of opinions and speech, there is no democracy.
I hope this case sets a precedent about freedom of thought.
# # #
[EDITOR'S NOTE, May 28, 2009: This article was edited after publication to remove the name of a commercial institution, at the request of Jean and his lawyers.]
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