QUITO, Ecuador – President Rafael Correa threatened unspecified consequences Tuesday for a fiercely independent indigenous community in Ecuador's Amazon that is harboring three political opponents who face prison for defaming him.
Correa angrily accused Sarayaku, whose 1,200 people belong to the country's biggest indigenous group, the Kichwa, of acting above the law. The remote community is famed among the indigenous in the Americas for successfully resisting oil drilling.
The president demanded that leaders of the community near the Pastaza river turn over congressman Clever Jimenez, his adviser Fernando Villavicencio and a prominent physician, Carlos Figueroa.
"Let's hope they reconsider this audacious and dangerous attitude," Correa told reporters. "Who decided that the Sarayaku community has moral supremacy over the rights of others?"
"They think themselves above the laws of the courts, and want the state to react to see if there are deaths, violence — to have a pretext to ask that the government falls," Correa added.
Community leaders could not immediately be reached for comment but announced via Twitter that "we have just been informed that heavily armed soldiers are headed for Sarayaku." They said military aircraft had been buzzing the community.
Ecuador's defense ministry issued a statement "denying categorically information spread on social networks" that soldiers had mobilized near Sarayaku. It said regular military activities were occurring in the region.
The three opposition activists were convicted earlier this month of defaming Correa by accusing him of crimes against humanity in ordering the military to use force to free him from a besieged hospital during a 2010 police uprising. Jimenez and Villavicencio were sentenced to 18 months, Figueroa to six months. They were collectively fined $145,000.
Human rights groups have questioned the independence of Ecuador's judiciary, accusing Correa of stacking the courts with loyalists and wielding them against political opponents.
The government made headlines in late December when security forces searched the offices of Jimenez and the home of Villavicencio and carried away computers. Correa alleged the two had broken into his personal email. Villaviencio, a journalist, and Jimenez have been investigating high-level government corruption.
After exhausting appeals this month of their defamation convictions, the three men showed up in Sarayaku.
The community's people successfully halted oil exploration on their lands in the late 1990s, stealing and hiding the explosives used by oil company technicians and resisting a military blockade of the Bobonaza river.
In 2012, they won a landmark ruling from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights that said Ecuador's government had no right to drill for oil on their lands without prior consent.
The court also barred Ecuador's security forces from Sarayaku.
The community and Amnesty International produced a 2012 documentary about its plight called "Children of the Jaguar."
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.