Dolores Ochoa, Associated Press
QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador's highest court on Thursday upheld a criminal libel verdict favoring President Rafael Correa, sentencing three newspaper executives and a columnist to three years in prison each and ordering them to pay a total of $42 million in damages.
The defendants, joined by international press freedom and human rights groups, had called the case an attempt by Correa to bankrupt the country's leading opposition newspaper, El Universo, and part of a concerted campaign to stifle free speech and silence critics.
After a 13 1/2-hour hearing on Wednesday, the three-judge panel of the National Court of Justice deliberated nearly two hours before ratifying the verdict, which is not subject to appeal.
Correa was present both for the ruling and during Wednesday's entire hearing.
The defendants had called the case a farce and accused Correa of subverting the legal system, including allowing his attorney to write last July's original lower-court ruling.
Groups including Human Rights Watch have decried criminal defamation laws such as Ecuador's, which they say give politicians such as Correa immense power to crush dissent.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that the ruling "represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador."
Before final deliberations began, Judge Wilson Merino asked both sides if they had reached a resolution.
The defendants' attorney, Monica Vargas, said the Guayaquil-based newspaper "has always been open" to a solution.
But Correa said "in the face of such dirty tricks at this point in time an apology cannot be accepted."
Correa said he had no choice but to file suit to defend himself against false accusations in a column by Palacio that El Universo published a year ago.
It repeatedly referred to Correa as "the Dictator" and said he "ordered discretionary fire — without prior notification — against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people" during a Sept. 30, 2010, police revolt over government plans to cut police benefits that claimed at least five lives.
Correa had taken refuge in the hospital after defiantly confronting police, who roughted him up. The army was called in to rescue Correa from armed insurgents who he said had surrounded the building.
One of the day's fatalities was a police officer shot to death escorting the SUV in which the president was spirited out of a hospital but there is no indication that government troops fired on the hospital.
Three of the four defendants left Ecuador before the verdict, saying they feared for their safety, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli announced Thursday he was granting political asylum to El Universo's director, Carlos Perez.
In a statement, Perez called the verdict "particularly alarming because it exposed raw corruption in Ecuador's judicial system, which was manipulated by Correa and his cronies to wage a full-scale attack on our newspaper and the sacred right of free speech."
"People should be under no illusions about what the impact of this case will be: It already has had a chilling effect on what Ecuadoreans can say and report."
His brothers Nicolas and Cesar, the paper's new media manager and deputy director, were in Miami along with Emilio Palacio, the columnist and former opinion page editor of the newspaper.
Correa said the verdict would "change history."
"This creates a precedent not just for Ecuador but also in all of our America(s)," he said.
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