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Newspaper directors, writer sentenced to three years in prison, US$40 million fine

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - On 20 July 2011, Judge Juan Paredes, temporarily in charge of the Fifteenth Penal Guarantees Court of Guayas, sentenced editorial writer Emilio Palacio, of "El Universo", and newspaper directors Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez to three years in prison and ordered them to pay US$30 million in damages. The paper's parent company, Compañía Anónima El Universo, will also have to pay an additional US$10 million. Fundamedios expressed concern over the unprecedented sentence.

The case stems back to 22 March, when President Rafael Correa filed a criminal complaint against the paper, Carlos Pérez and Palacio, accusing them of "malicious slander".

Judge Paredes's term presiding over the court was supposed to end on 20 July. Within 24 hours, the judge drafted and announced the sentence which was then forwarded to the parties involved in the lawsuit.

At dawn on 20 July, the website of the Guayas Judicial Administration had already published the first part of the General Ruling. The site crashed as a result of the number of visitors to the webpage and as a result, at 18:00 the judge read the sentence out in the presence of some journalists.

Part of the ruling reads as follows: "Animus injuriandi [desire to offend] is not necessarily based on the malicious intent to cause harm but also takes into account the character of what is said or written, and the possibility that these actions may damage another person's reputation. ( . . . ) Animus injuriandi can be said to apply in this case, based on statements contained in the article 'NO a las mentiras', which are deemed to be detrimental to one's honor. As such, the accused are found guilty of malicious slander".

One of President Correa's lawyers, Alembert Vera, told the media that "justice has been served, freedom of expression has won". Vera added that they will appeal the judge's decision since the president had originally requested a total of US$80 million in damages.

On the other hand, Palacio said in an interview with the FM Mundo radio station that the president is trying to destroy "El Universo" and curtail freedom of expression, which is already under attack. Messages in support of "El Universo" and Palacio have been distributed through the social networks, as have comments in favor of the sentence.

Fundamedios expresses deep concern over the sentence, as it sets a dangerous precedent, given the irregularities in the proceedings, partly as a result of mixing civil and criminal procedures. A media outlet has been held responsible for the expressed opinions of a feature writer and a disproportionate and unprecedented amount of damages have been imposed.
Case history

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