This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Twenty years on, Daniel David Tibi can't forget the dirt, dead bodies, brawls and torture. He's out of prison, but the ordeal hasn’t left the jewellery dealer, who in September 1995 was sent to one of Ecuador’s deadliest prisons, Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil. First charged on drug trafficking offences, Tibi was locked up for nearly three years, with no trial and no lawyer, before the charges were eventually dropped. The Frenchman says he had two goals: stay alive and prove his innocence, amid corruption and violence.
Tibi meets me at ‘L’Atlantique’, a cafe in the Parisian neighbourhood of Montparnasse, and also the name of the ocean he crossed again last year to file a civil case against the Ecuadorian government. He’s hoping to finally close a chapter which has cost him both professionally and personally (Tibi missed his daughter's birth while in prison). Tibi was eventually found innocent of the charges in Ecuador. Later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held Ecuador responsible for violating Tibi’s human rights – and his family’s – for detaining him without a warrant and torturing him with beatings, waterboarding and cigarette burns.
Tibi’s creased face has the eyes of a man who’s been through hell – including a now year-long cancer battle. To mark the release of his book in France, Dans L’enfer d’une Prison Équatorienne [in the hell of an Ecuadorian prison], I asked Tibi how he made it out alive.
VICE: How do you survive in a place where bribes and violence are the norm?
Daniel David Tibi: I think what saved my life was my deep hatred of injustice. That was my motor. Plus, I knew I was going to be a dad. I promised myself I’d get out of there so I could fulfil that role. That helped me keep my mind stable. But to stay alive, you have to completely change the way you behave, the way you look at everything. You meet people who don’t value life at all, so you have to act accordingly. When someone provokes you, you have to fight – in the most literal sense of the word. Especially when you’re a foreigner. The life expectancy for an Ecuadorian prisoner isn’t very high to begin with, but for a foreigner, it’s even lower.
Did you ever want to give up, to just let yourself die?
There were several times I lost my will to fight, because physically I was so weakened. I had lost a bunch of weight. More than once, I was sure I was at the very end of my resources. From day to day, there was no guarantee I’d be able to ensure my own safety. They smashed my face; they burned me with a red-hot iron. But the lowest point was probably when my girlfriend left Ecuador with the kids, to go back to France. At that point, I felt truly alone in the world.
What were your days in prison like?
I tried to keep busy. I did woodwork, I drew, I repaired all kinds of objects, I built a guitar. Then I started studying the Ecuadorian penal code, their narcotics laws. That way I could keep making progress on my case and present my appeal to the higher courts. After I went to confront to the judge who’d put me in jail, bit by bit I started winning the respect of the other prisoners – and also a measure of security. I tried to explain to them that of course I wanted to get out of there, but I also wanted to fight against the conditions we were living in. We were living in the same nightmare. I started to receive help from the other prisoners’ families – and then from the prisoners themselves.
Did you put pressure on the judge from your cell?
The Ecuadorian journalists quickly realised my battle with the judge was media-worthy, and they began to cover it. I went after the judge for his inconsistencies and lies – and there were many. I was able to call him out – he had nothing on me. Then a French journalist from Le Monde, Alain Abellard, was the first in France to write about me, to condemn the negligence of an Ecuadorian judicial system which could detain a French national without any charges, without proof. Then our French diplomats took up the baton, most notably by cutting off diplomatic relations [with Ecuador] until I was freed.
Do you remember the day you were freed?
It was a big moment. One day the consul general of France came to ask me to pack my suitcases; he said we were leaving immediately. I only half-believed him and I was also afraid of leaving; I had become accustomed to that gross atmosphere. I remember thinking, “I’ll get out – and then what do I do?” My family was long gone; everything I had was in Ecuador. I would have to relearn how to live life according to codes I had completely forgotten.
How did you unlearn the behaviour you had learned in prison?
You have to rebuild yourself. Physically, for one. I had been beaten in the face with a baseball bat. So half my face was bashed up. One of my eyes was smashed in. My teeth were broken; someone had branded me with an iron; I had holes in my abdominal wall. I also had some neurological problems, which took time to pass. Then after the physical recovery, you have to figure out how to put meaning back in your life. I ended up going back into jewellery dealing.
You also took the Ecuadorian government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – which sided with you – before you filed a civil suit against Ecuador.
Choosing that path allowed me to leave through the front door, even though it’s not easy. Last summer I went back to Ecuador for the start of the court proceedings, so I was brutally plunged back into that environment. Having to relive those days, seeing the people who were part of that horror… it’s a very emotional experience. Also, I made some enemies during those [earlier] proceedings. That meant that in order to return to the country, I had to take part in a witness protection program.
You really wanted to improve the legal system.
When I got out, I promised my fellow prisoners I would help them as soon as I could. I have no hatred toward Ecuador; I just want to fight for the defence of human rights.