Correa pardons journalists jailed by Ecuadorian court for libel
'El Universo' had been ordered to pay $40m for calling president "a dictator"
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on Monday pardoned three newspaper publishers and a former columnist, who were sentenced to jail and ordered to pay $40 million in damages in a libel case that has angered human rights organizations and press associations across the globe.
"I've decided to pardon the accused and grant them remission of the sentences that they rightly received," Correa said in a televised speech.
Last week, the National Court of Justice upheld the three-year jail terms and monetary fines handed down last year against the publishers of Guayaquil daily El Universo - brothers Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez Barriga - and a former columnist at the newspaper, Emilio Palacio.
Palacio, who has applied for asylum in Miami, had written a column calling Correa "a dictator," and accused him of ordering the shootings of innocent people during a police uprising in 2010.
Before the court upheld a lower judge's decision, the newspaper publisher Carlos Pérez was granted asylum in Panama at the request of President Ricardo Martinelli, a conservative who has been at odds with Correa's leftist government.
"They have been talking about a dictatorship and they were right because there is a dictatorship and there's a government that has been fighting that dictatorship - the dictatorship of the press," Correa said.
Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) jumped into the fray and requested that Correa commute the sentences - a petition that angered Quito. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said he would appear before the IACHR "to tell them what they need to hear."
Correa, nevertheless, also announced he won't collect any money from the authors of a book about his brother, alleging that he has earned millions in government contracts since the leftist leader was elected. Christian Zurita and Juan Carlos Calderón were convicted by a lower court and ordered to pay $2 million for slandering the president in their book El gran hermano (or, Big brother).
Since taking office in 2007, Correa has been battling with the country's media and has introduced a tough law that restricts what the press can report, especially during an election year. In his speech Monday, Correa said he never thought of keeping one cent from any of the damages awarded by the court.
"I never wanted to go to trial, and I never intended to send anyone to jail. All we were looking for was the truth," he said.
The publishers of El Universo said they won't issue any public comment about Correa's decision until the sentence is finalized. Both the newspaper's lawyers and Ecuadorian government representatives are expected to meet on March 28 to go over the terms of a public apology El Universo will issue.
Still, acting publisher Nila Velásquez said the president's announcement did provide "some sense of relief" among the newspaper's employees, who had feared they would have lost their jobs.
Lawyers for the newspaper had threatened to take the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the European tribunal in The Hague. After Correa announced the pardons, the lower court that had originally handed down the sentences against El Universo dismissed the case.