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Tribunal sets new date for the review of facts in "El Universo" case

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - On 10 February 2012, the judges of the newly formed Criminal Division of the National Court of Justice, in charge of reviewing an appeal for the review of facts concerning the sentence that convicted a former feature writer and the directors of the newspaper "El Universo" to three years in prison and the payment of US$40 million in damages, have set 15 February as the new date for the hearing.

A few hours before making this decision, this same division had decided to suspend the hearing. The date for this had been set by the previous members of the tribunal, who excused themselves from hearing the case.

Fundamedios received first-hand knowledge that "El Universo"'s defense attorneys had already been notified about the new date.

On the morning of 10 February, Judge Wilson Merino announced before President Rafael Correa, both parties' attorneys and the media, that they had decided to suspend the hearing because the drawing of lots to determine the allocation of cases had taken place “just 12 hours ago, and the decision about who would be the judge-rapporteur, just one hour before”. Therefore, he said “the day and time in which the proceeding will take place shall be shared at the proper time through the judicial mailboxes”.

The National Communication Department published on Twitter that it would be possible to follow the proceedings live from 9:00 a.m. on 15 February. After hearing the judges' decision, President Correa announced that he had even had to suspend a trip to Cuba to attend the hearing.

The new division that will deal with the case involving "El Universo" is made up of judges Wilson Merino, Paúl Íñiguez and Jorge Blum. This was decided by a secret drawing of lots that took place in the afternoon a day before.

The draw was questioned by "El Universo"'s attorney Xavier Zavala Egas, who commented that it was not done according to what is established by law.

Zavala stated that “the law establishes that lots to choose three judges should be drawn for each of the cases admitted, and this was not done yesterday. The division's ministers were handpicked to make up three tribunals, and those tribunals were allocated cases, allegedly by drawing lots".

The lawyer also pointed out that the judges were right to suspend the hearing, but he believes there is a similarity between the decisions of the judges and the political agenda of the president, who wants to close the case as soon as possible. He added that the case will be dealt with in a better way when they appeal to international organizations.

This is the second time the judges have suspended a hearing for the review of facts. The first time was on 24 January because they were not able to put together the tribunal.

On 22 March 2011, President Rafael Correa sued former "El Universo" feature writer Emilio Palacio; its three directors, Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez, and the company for US$80 million, after the opinion article “No a las mentiras” was published. The article, which was written by Palacio, referred to the president's actions during the events of 30 September 2010.

On 20 July 2011, in a first instance ruling, a temporary judge declared Palacio guilty of offences against the president and the newspaper's directors as contributing authors of the crime. He convicted all of them to three years in prison and to the payment of US$40 million in damages. This sentence was ratified in a second instance.

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