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American human rights commission orders suspension of sentence against "El Universo"

"Correa to the press: Let the sentence be executed!"

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has asked Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to suspend the sentence in a criminal libel case against newspaper "El Universo" until a hearing between the two parties can be held next month, report the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International and news reports.

The IACHR issued the precautionary injunction until a hearing on 28 March at the IACHR offices in Washington, D.C., at which both parties will present their arguments in the case. The commission will then take a decision.

Alembert Vera, a lawyer for Correa, told Dow Jones Newswires that the IACHR decision has no legal validity because Ecuador's highest court had not yet communicated the ruling to the parties, and some formalities still hadn't been met.

"There is no sentence. There is no ruling to be suspended. The Human Rights Commission has advanced criteria, breaking the principles of respect for the states, the domestic jurisdiction and the respect for judicial independence," said Vera.

Nicolas Pérez Barriga, one of the three owners of "El Universo" who were sentenced in the case, said in a press release that the commission's decision is "a milestone in our battle for freedom of the press and equal justice under the law in Ecuador," as the ruling had exhausted "El Universo's" legal appeals in Ecuador.

"We are looking forward to presenting the facts of the case to an independent, impartial body of justices from across the Americas. We are sure this review will expose the judicial corruption and lack of due process that threaten not only Ecuador's press freedom, but its democracy," he added.

The Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (Fundamedios) and other IFEX members have called the case a cynical attempt by Correa to bankrupt the country's leading opposition newspaper as part of a concerted campaign to stifle free speech and silence critics.

Last March, Correa filed the suit against the owners of the Guayaquil-based daily - brothers Nicolas, Carlos and César Pérez Barriga - and its editor, Emilio Palacio. All four were convicted in July and sentenced to three years in jail and fines totalling US$40 million.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the 16 February ruling came after a chaotic 15-hour hearing attended by Correa and about 20 of his cabinet ministers and top aides. From his Twitter account (@mashirafael), Correa called on supporters to descend on the court building until a decision was reached.

Government supporters quickly gathered outside the court, where they waved Ecuadoran flags, burned copies of newspapers, shouted anti-"El Universo" slogans, and scuffled with a group of "El Universo" defenders. According to CPJ, several journalists were roughed up in the fray.

The decision was upheld despite numerous allegations of Correa subverting the legal system - including allowing his attorney, Gutemberg Vera, to write the original verdict, reports Fundamedios.

Just three days prior to the final ruling, a lower court judge, Monica Encalada, released a video and affidavit claiming that Vera had drafted the ruling and that he had offered about US$75,000 to another judge in the case to rule in Correa's favour.

According to news reports, Vera denied the accusations, and Encalada fled the country and arrived in Bogota, Colombia, on 22 February.

During a break in the hearing, Correa told reporters, "If this legal process ends successfully, it would unleash in Ecuador and throughout our Americas similar lawsuits and would represent a great step forward for the liberation of our Americas from one of the largest and most unpunished powers: the corrupt media."

Correa said he had no choice but to file the suit to defend himself against false accusations in a column by Palacio that "El Universo" published a year ago.

The column repeatedly referred to Correa as "the Dictator" and said he ordered troops to fire "without warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people" during a September 2010 police revolt over government plans to cut police benefits.

Three of the four defendants left Ecuador before the verdict, saying they feared for their safety, reports CPJ. Palacio filed for political asylum in the United States earlier this month. César and Nicolas are currently in Miami trying to raise international support for their case.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli announced on his Twitter account (@rmartinelli) that he had granted political asylum to Carlos, who is now staying in the Panamanian embassy in Ecuador's capital, Quito.

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    "This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador," says CPJ.

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  • Panama grants diplomatic asylum to "El Universo" director

    The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, granted diplomatic asylum to Carlos Pérez Barriga after a sentence was ratified that convicted the paper's directors, and former feature writer to three years in prison and the payment of $40 million for the crime of slanderous offenses against President Rafael Correa.

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