REPORTING FROM QUITO, ECUADOR, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa hinted Thursday that he was considering a pardon for the owners of El Universo newspaper and a columnist whose multimillion-dollar fines and jail terms for allegedly defaming the leader were upheld by the nation’s highest court.
At a Thursday news conference, Correa hailed the “historic” verdicts that he said upheld the principles of democracy and liberty. But he also reminded reporters that he had the power to pardon the defendants.
“I’m going to talk about [granting pardons] with my friends, my closest circle, because the last thing I want to do is damage my political goals,” Correa said. “We have to see what is best for democracy, for the country.”
Correa attended a 15-hour hearing of the National Court of Justice in Quito, the nation’s highest court, at which judges refused to annul a lower court’s sentencing of the Guayaquil newspaper’s owners and editors Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez to $42 million in fines and three years in jail.
Correa’s lawsuit has attracted condemnation among press freedom and human rights groups, while some analysts have said El Universo went too far with its antagonistic coverage of the president.
The Perez brothers were not present at the hearing. Cesar and Nicolas fled to Miami this month and said they will seek “international support.” Carlos Perez is the only brother still in Ecuador -- holed up in the Panamanian Embassy in Quito, where he is seeking asylum. (Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said on his Twitter account Thursday that he will grant the request.)
Emilio Palacio, whose February 2011 column in the Guayaquil newspaper provoked the president's lawsuit, also has been sentenced to jail. He fled to Miami in August and said he will seek political asylum.
In his column, Palacio described the democratically elected president as a “dictator” and accused the president of having ordered authorities “to fire at their discretion at a hospital full of civilians” during a police mutiny in September 2010. The lower court found Palacio didn’t prove the charges and found him and his bosses liable.
Palacio was convicted in 2009 for a previous column attacking an official in Correa's government. The offended official personally pardoned him.
The court ruling left El Universo’s future in doubt. The owners have previously said that having to pay the fine would be the death knell of the paper, Ecuador’s second largest.
In an editorial published Thursday, the newspaper said it would “continue working faithfully in its commitment to ethical principles of journalism and in defense of the interests of Ecuadoreans” while it looked for support among international organizations.
The Perez brothers have said they will appeal to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States.
Pending is another defamation case brought by Correa against reporters who wrote that his brother was involved in corrupt contracting practices. Although Correa has acknowledged that his brother was involved in shady dealings, he denies any prior knowledge of them, contrary to what the reporters wrote.
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Photo: Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa in Quito on Thursday. Credit: Dolores Ochoa / Associated Press