$40 million libel verdict condemned by rights group $40 million libel verdict condemned by rights group

Freedom House has strongly condemned Ecuadorean Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the sentence against newspaper El Universo brought by President Rafael Correa. Wednesday Quito’s high court rejected the appeal filed by the newspaper and upheld the prison sentence of three years against three executives, and a fine for $40 million for libel against President Correa, the organization said. The verdict is not subject to further appeals, it added.

President Correa sued El Universo owners, Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Pérez, as well as Emilio Palacio, a former columnist of the newspaper and author of an El Universo opinion piece “No to the lies,” where he calls Correa a dictator and holds him responsible for the deaths of civilians during the Sept. 30, 2010, police revolt.

“This is a disturbing step backwards for freedom of expression in Ecuador,” said Viviana Giacaman, director for Latin America programs at Freedom House. “This ruling will have a chilling effect not only for the press but for all dissent in the country.”

The judicial process that led to the verdict was highly controversial and left many questioning the independence and transparency of the judiciary. In the lower court, a temporary judge, Judge Juan Paredes reviewed the submissions made last July 19 and drafted the 156-page sentence in less than two days, notifying the parties of his decision on July 20.

Judge Monica Encalada, a recused judge who was involved in the original sentencing, stated earlier this week that Correa’s attorney was highly involved in drafting the ruling, as the defense team for El Universo claimed during the first ruling.

“The way the judicial process was conducted leaves serious doubts that there was full respect to the due process of law. Serious limitations to freedom of expression compounded with lack of respect for the rule of law can lead to a serious deterioration of democracy in Ecuador,” Ms. Giacaman added.

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