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Defence lawyers question judge's independence in case against newspaper; opinion editor faces new lawsuit

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - On 18 August 2011, Judge Eduardo Guerrero Mórtola, of the Second Criminal Division of the Guayas Court of Justice, was suspended by the Transitional Judiciary Council. The judge was in charge of an appeal against a previous ruling in a lawsuit filed by President Rafael Correa against the "El Universo" newspaper, three of its directors and the paper's former opinion editor, Emilio Palacio. The new judge appointed to hear the case will be the seventh to have considered the matter. Guerrero explained that he was suspended because he had allegedly not provided proper justification for the sentencing in a different case.

The Provincial Judiciary Administrative Council has designated Judge Stevie Raúl Gamboa Valladares as Guerrero's replacement, allegedly via a random selection process. The "El Universo" defence team, however, has expressed concern over Gamboa's appointment, saying he was assigned to the case without complying with the prerequisite of having at least seven years of professional experience. They also say he has ties to the lawyer for the plaintiff, Alembert Vera, because they studied together at the Guayaquil Catholic University. Moreover, Correa's lawyer and Gamboa appeared in recent press photos where they are seen hugging each other at a party. This allegation was denied by Vera, who stated that the photographs prove nothing and that "El Universo" has gone from being "a serious newspaper to a gossip tabloid."

In the slander lawsuit filed by Correa, a provisional judge sentenced the newspaper's directors and former opinion writer to three years in prison and ordered them to pay a total of US$40 million in damages.

It is worth noting that the fairness of the trial, in which five first instance and two second instance judges have intervened thus far, has been questioned because, among other things, it was "handled quickly" (within four months) by five different judges and the sentencing process was carried out in record time by a provisional judge who stated publicly that he worked until 5:00 a.m. on the day of the final hearing in order to issue the verdict.

In another development peripherally related to the "El Universo" case, on 22 August, Palacio, the newspaper's former opinion editor, announced that he is facing new charges for "aggravated non-slanderous offences", filed by the state-owned Ecuador TV television station. Ecuador TV's lawyers and directors have accused Palacio of "offending" the station by describing it as a "fascist media outlet".

On 21 July, during a press conference organized by the "El Universo" directors to protest the ruling issued against the paper by the provisional judge, Palacio asked Ecuador TV journalist Gustavo Espinoza to leave the premises, saying "he (Palacio) doesn't provide statements to fascists" who are part of "the propaganda machinery paid for by the government."

The television station's legal department confirmed that a lawsuit has been filed against Palacio, although they did not want to go into details.

Ecuador TV's general manager, Enrique Arosemena, also wrote on his Twitter account that "ECTV sued Palacio because he attacked Gustavo Espinoza, calling him a 'fascist' when he was simply doing his work."

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