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Ecuador high court upholds $40 million libel suit

By Mariano Castillo and Nelson Quinones, CNN
updated 8:35 AM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ecuador's highest court upheld a libel conviction against a newspaper
  • The newspaper says the president had unfair influence in the proceedings
  • The directors and a former editor now face $40 million in fines

(CNN) -- Ecuador's highest court has upheld a conviction and a $40 million judgment against a newspaper in a case that pitted the paper's directors and a former opinion editor against the country's president.

The three-judge panel ruled late Wednesday that a lower court's decision to hold the paper accountable for the content of an opinion column that described President Rafael Correa as a dictator was correct.

Correa sued El Universo newspaper, arguing the article unjustly claimed he had ordered security forces to open fire at a hospital full of civilians last September.

The newspaper and press freedom advocates countered that the president was trying to crack down on critics by restricting the media.

"The truth has shined," Correa said after the ruling.

"We have set a precedent. This sentence and this process are historic. They demonstrate that nobody has the right to tarnish the truth," the president said. "Not only is the person who wrote it responsible, but also the directors who allowed the offense and the newspaper where it was printed."

The ruling means that the accused must pay $30 million, and the newspaper must pay $10 million, to Correa.

Emilio Palacio, El Universo's former opinion editor and author of the column, told CNN en EspaƱol that the court ruling sets the wrong example.

"Of course this sets a precedent: For the first time in the history of Latin America, and I suppose, the world, a president wins $40 million for his pocket by manipulating justice, naming the judges he desired, and using his influence," Palacio said.

Palacio and the newspaper's directors argued that they were denied the opportunity to properly present their defense during the first trial, and accused Correa of influencing the selection of judges favorable to him on the high court.

"The only thing that was left under these conditions was for the ratification of this shameful conviction," Palacio said.

The court ruling also calls for three years in prison for Palacio. He resigned from the paper in July and is now living in Miami, where he is seeking asylum.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which concluded in a special report that Ecuador's defamation laws have been systematically used to punish critical journalists, criticized the high court's decision.

"An editor is seeking political asylum, three executives may soon go to jail, and the country's leading paper may go bankrupt solely because President Correa disliked an opinion piece," said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas Program coordinator for the organization. "This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador."

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