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Tribunal upholds sentencing of newspaper, its directors and former feature writer on defamation charge

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - 20 September 2011 - Fundamedios condemns the decision by a Guayas Provincial Court of Justice Chamber to uphold a sentence issued against the "El Universo" newspaper, along with several of its directors and a former feature writer for the paper, condemning them to three years in prison and a penalty of US$40 million. This action by the Ecuadoran justice system sets a disastrous precedent, both nationally and internationally, against freedom of expression, a fundamental human right. It violates several international standards and principles, including the elimination of prison sentences as punishment for the expression of opinions, and encourages censorship by a media outlet's directors. It is also disproportionate with respect to the amount of the financial penalty. In addition to the above, Fundamedios is concerned about several irregularities in the legal process, which call into question the independence of the Ecuadoran justice system.

With two votes in favour and the abstention of one judge, the sentence issued in first instance by provisional judge Juan Paredes in the defamation case filed by President Rafael Correa against "El Universo", its former features writer, Emilio Palacio, and its three directors, Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez, was upheld in its entirety.

With the votes of judges Henry Morán and Helen Mantilla, the tribunal confirmed Palacio's guilt as the author of the article "No a las mentiras" (No to the lies), published in February 2011. It also upheld the sentence against the Pérez brothers as "assisting authors" of the allegedly defamatory text. The third judge, Tribunal President Guillermo Freyre, withheld his vote and stated that Palacio should be declared guilty and condemned to six months in prison and a penalty of US$600,000 while the three directors and the "El Universo" company should be declared innocent.

During the legal process, in which 13 different judges participated due to changes at the first and second instance levels, the newspaper's defence team questioned the speed with which the trial progressed (six months from the time the lawsuit was filed) and the various changes in the dates of hearings, which were re-scheduled six times. After the 16 September hearing, the tribunal declared verbally that the sentence would be read on 22 September. However, this date was also switched to 20 September at the request of Correa, who announced during his usual Saturday broadcast that he would ask for the change so he could travel to New York.

In addition, the press suffered several disturbing incidents, from jeering aimed at journalists to obstacles that hampered their coverage of the legal process. Several journalists from private media outlets reported on these issues via social networks, stating that they had been prevented from attending hearings while the official press and the president's supporters had been allowed in. These incidents took place on both 16 and 20 September.

"El Universo" deputy director César Pérez announced during a press conference after hearing the sentence that they will continue the legal fight and will file a motion for annulment.
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