Just three years after brothers Roja-John and Ronell Stephenson settled on a farm in Ecuador, their lives were turned upside down by a government and legal system inundated with flaws, according to their lawyer.
The brothers have called Ecuador home since 2014 after John purchased the 120-acre land in the province of Morona Santiago with the purposes of contributing to the agricultural sector and developing an ecotourism business. In March of 2017, that all changed when the brothers and John’s wife, Johanna, were arrested at the farm on charges of drug trafficking and possession of firearms.
According to Global Liberty Alliance (GLA) and the lawyer from the organization representing the Stephensons, Jason Poblete, the property was searched and they were later charged with the homicide of two members of the nearby Shuar indigenous community. The arrests for homicide occurred six days after the bodies of Gyru Tzamarenda and Klinger Wajuyata were found on the property. Following the brothers’ and Johanna’s arrest, the three went to trial in December of 2017, with just Johanna being acquitted of all charges. From the beginning, the brothers have claimed their innocence as several pieces of “exculpatory evidence” exist from the crime scene, according to GLA, which has taken on the Stephensons’ case.
“From the five minutes into the initial reading of what had happened, my legal mind said something is wrong here,” said Poblete, a human rights lawyer who is also president of GLA. “We took a deeper look at the case, and we decided this is an unlawful detention and these men have been left behind.”
The brothers were sentenced in 2018 to 24 years in prison, and had the sentencing increased by 10 years and eight months, on the basis of “mitigating circumstances,” according to GLA. The organization claims that the alleged mishaps of the case include the discovery of the bodies on the property by the Shuar tribe themselves. This, being after the original search to several pieces of the aforementioned “exculpatory evidence.”
GLA reports this evidence as faults related to the crime-scene, including dirt found in the victim’s mouths that was not from the Stephenson property and DNA found on the victims that was not forensically tested. GLA also claims that the “alleged crime scene” was burned down by those from the Shuar tribe on the day of the arrest, and an overwhelming presence of the Shuar that caused the police to leave the area.
“There were times where [the defense] argued many reasons as to why they could not bring on evidence, depending on which stage of the proceedings you were in,” said Poblete, who mentioned the reasons range from the Ecuadorian judges giving indiscriminate or inconsistent rulings.
Poblete adds that the case was so fumbled to the point where officials could not find prosecutors to pick up the case.
“One defense lawyer told me they thought they didn’t have enough to bring the case—and they still brought it, trying to ram it through the process.”
The men also did not have access to a certified translator during the case, as GLA claims the Stephensons had to use a local taxi driver to translate for them. Poblete argues that the case should be looked into by the Biden administration, under the allowance of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. Signed into law in 2020 by former President Trump, the Levinson Act updates the nation’s law and hostage policy. Under it, the secretary of state must “transfer responsibility for such case from the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the Department of State to the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs,” promptly, if specific conditions are met.
“We have given a lot of information to the U.S. government and we expect them to handle this case accordingly on the U.S. side, just like we expect the Ecuadorians to follow their law,” said Poblete.
Since they were incarcerated, Roja-John and Ronell have reported the conditions of the separate prisons they are in to be violent and deplorable. Ecuadorian prisons have a reputation for extreme acts of violence, just as a riot killed 20 inmates last week at El Turi prison in the city of Cuenca.
“If you look up Ecuadorian prison systems, you’re going to see some pretty gruesome stuff—men being tortured, beheaded and killed in large numbers,” said Poblete. “That’s where they have American citizens right now—locked up in a system where they’re not safe.”
Poblete mentioned the brothers being African American as a large factor in their arrest and imprisonment in Ecuador.
“They’ve been accused of a horrible crime that they did not commit, they happen to be Black and more importantly, they are American people who happen to be successful people,” said Poblete. “They went down there, succeeded and did something good. People see that and get envious and choose to take advantage of that.”
In November of last year, Ronell came down with what the prison thought was a severe stomach bug. He eventually collapsed, fainted, and was rushed to the hospital where he received a diagnosis of colon cancer. According to Poblete, Ronell’s cancer has progressed to Stage 4 and needs better treatment immediately.
“The doctors in Ecuador keep telling him ‘You need to go to America to get treatment, ’ and ironically, to their home state of Maryland to go to the cancer centers that are some of the best in the world,” said Poblete.
Robert Stephenson, the father of the brothers, said Ronell’s cancer rapidly progressed because he caught COVID and tuberculosis, causing chemotherapy treatment to be interrupted. He believes Ecuador should pay for all treatment costs.
“So far they have not stepped up to do it, so in order to save my son’s life we are doing it now,” said Stephenson.
In an attempt to reach the Hostage Affairs Office about its attention to the case, a State Department spokesperson replied via email, “We are aware that U.S. citizens Ronell and Roja Stephenson are incarcerated in Ecuador on charges of murder. We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad, and are providing all appropriate consular services.”
The spokesperson claimed the brothers have received welfare checks since their 2017 arrest and that the office follows up with the brothers’ requests from authorities in Ecuador and will monitor the case appeal and provide “all necessary consular services.”
Robert Stephenson, however, is not satisfied with this response. He claimed there was no regard to Ronell’s health when he was diagnosed with cancer in November, because the office was not even aware that he was admitted to a hospital for treatment.
“A day later I called them and they told me Ronell never went to the hospital and there is no proof he is in any hospital in the town,” said Stephenson, who mentioned that Hostage Affairs continued to make these claims for a day or two. “That’s how useful they were.”
GLA and local advocates in the U.S. have attempted to reach other government officials about the Stephenson brothers’ case. In addition to Hostage Affairs, Poblete has reached several agencies and politicians from the Ecuadorian embassy in D.C. to Maryland Senator Ben Cardin for some form of support. As of now, little has been accomplished to assist the brothers from a government standpoint.
“In these cases it’s not easy to get any government to move on something like this,” said Poblete. “The Hostage Affairs office has been cooperative but they’re not acting with the haste that we need to solve this problem.”
Poblete said the Ecuadorian ambassador, Ivonne A-Baki, has offered to assist but believes she is limited to what she can do unless the U.S. and Ecuador convene to discuss the matter.
Imam Alfred Mohammed is the councilman for the 4th ward in Linden, N.J. and a human rights advocate based in Harlem, who learned about the case from an interview he saw with the Stephenson brothers. Mohammed has called on the office of local Congressman Gregory Meeks, who according to Mohammed, has given consideration to the case. Mohammed believes it is important to bring attention because the brothers are Black Americans abroad.
“I’m very interested in the rights and responsibilities of Africans in the diaspora, and particularly Latin America where our people are treated differently,” said Mohammed. “It’s all xenophobic and about white supremacy, given with sexuality or fear of the Black male.”