On Friday, an appeals court vacated the criminal court conviction against United States citizen and journalist David Strecker. Strecker, known in social media as Cuba Dave is a 66 year old man, who from his home in Key West, Florida gave advice on travel on Costa Rica. In 2015, Dave became the subject of a criminal investigation, funded in part by the United States Department of State, through the faith based, non-profit organization Fundación Rahab.
In the 40 page written decision of Second Judicial Court, File 15-018744-0042-PE(18), Resolution 2017-0596 the three judge panel cited fundamental flaws in a Costa Rica Law 9095, designed to counter human trafficking. The appellate decision also found serious faults with the evidence collected in the case.
Among the arguments by Strecker’s attorney, Luis Diego Chacon admitted to the appeal, the trial court failed to consider that by writing about his own personal experiences, about an activity that is not illegal in Costa Rica, Strecker lacked criminal intent. Using his own name and not taking any measures to conceal his identity, Strecker was acting in the role of a journalist. Video updates from Strecker’s Youtube channel were published while he was on United States soil. The court file correlates dates from video updates to immigration records.
According to the appellate court, the trial court will need to sufficiently explain, in any further verdict how Strecker’s publications differed from other news reporters, journalists or social groups that discuss social problems, such as prostitution in Costa Rica. The trial court will also have to determine how Internet publication, made from outside the borders of Costa Rica is subject to the jurisdiction of the court.
More importantly, the trial court will have to address serious legal flaws in the 2012 law designed to counter human trafficking. The decision is a big set back for government, which passed the law during the administration of Laura Chinchilla, with support from the Clinton State Department. Either the trial court, or more likely a subsequent law will have to explicitly define the meaning of “sexual tourism”, and what “promoting” means in the context of the crime. A new legal framework would also have to reconcile how talking openly about prostitution or any other activity that is not actually illegal in Costa Rica, could itself constitute a crime.
In the United States, promoting an illegal activity usually means proving material support or being involved in some way with an illicit transaction. Throughout the year and half investigation, prosecutors have never been able to produce evidence of Strecker’s involvement with organized crime or an illicit business in Costa Rica. He simply would talk about his experiences and post photos, mostly of himself on vacation in Costa Rica. He frequently warned tourists to stay away from underage girls, and check for photo identification before going on dates.
The case against Dave Strecker is special not only because it is the first time someone has been charged under the 2012 law, designed to counter human trafficking in Costa Rica. According to prosecutors, the victim in the case is “Human Dignity”, and the party who brought the criminal complaint was the public relations director of the non-profit group Fundacion Rahab Costa Rica.
According to the appellate decision, a conviction for a crime where society as a whole is the victim will require a substantial amount of evidence. Prosecutors will have to demonstrate how the promotion, or in this case the publication of information causes material harm on a broad scale, and how it differs from other media that depicts women. The bar may be a high one to reach, as the local media in Costa Rica goes to great lengths to depict women as sexual objects.
For the United States Department of State there may be other questions. In particular, the role of U.S. government funded, and faith-based Fundacion Rahab Costa Rica has been documented. According to Strecker, he was approached, recorded and investigated in Costa Rica by English speaking “private investigators”. As an organization funded by the United States government, did Rahab pay for the private investigators or video surveillance? At any time did agents of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service participate in the investigation?
If so, then then the activity would have been a violation of the law in Costa Rica. Foreign governments are not allowed to enforce the law in Costa Rica.
Also, the State Department may be asked how it could have funded a politically motivated prosecution, in a foreign country, where a United States citizen while exercising his constitutionally protected right of free speech from United States soil, was subsequently arrested abroad, and imprisoned without trial for almost a year, at a prison where the State Department has frequently documented abuses of human rights.
In other words, why would the U.S. State Department lend financial support to Costa Rica’s flagship case against human trafficking, when the only person accused is a 66 year old Youtuber from Key West who recorded videos of himself, from his home in Florida? How does this advance the multi-million dollar cause against human trafficking, and why is the U.S. State Department putting Americans in foreign prisons for videos they recorded while in the United States?
The extent to which the U.S. consulate in Costa Rica may have provided other material support for the prosecution is still unknown. When originally questioned by reporters, representatives from Rahab denied any involvement in the case. However, at trial judicial police testified under oath that Rahab had initiated the case. Since the revelation, Mariliana Morales the director of Rahab refused to answer further questions or explain why her organization lied to the press. At present, the United States Department of State has denied all freedom of information requests (FOIA) initiated by this publication.