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25/02/2012 | Judge in Ecuador libel case flees country

Jim Wyss

The $42 million criminal libel case against Ecuador's El Universo newspaper keeps generating controversy and asylum seekers.


On Thursday, Monica Encalada, an Ecuadoran judge who reviewed the case, said she was seeking the protection of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission after exposing what she called "bald corruption" in the judicial system.

During a press conference in Bogota, Encalada said lawyers for Ecuador President Rafael Correa promised her $3,000 a month and steady work if she would rule against the newspaper.

The libel case that Correa brought against an El Universo columnist and three executives was handled ultimately by Judge Juan Paredes. But when Paredes was questioned under oath on how he could turn a 150-page sentence so quickly, he said he relied on Encalada's work.

Facing a bank of microphones, Encalada called the magistrate a liar. While she acknowledged giving him a memory stick with part of the casework, none of that material ended up in the final sentence, she said. She contends that Paredes later told her that the sentence was written by Correa's legal team.

El Universo says it has proof that the sentence was written on a pirated version of Microsoft Word registered to a fictitious "Chucky Seven." According to El Universo's lawyers, the document has hidden encoding that matches other sentences written by Correa's lawyer Gutenberg Vera. The newspaper is suing Paredes for inserting false statements in a public document.

The government has ridiculed the "Chucky Seven" claims, as they are known in Ecuador, and has accused Encalada of being bought off by El Universo.

The controversial libel case revolves around a scathing editorial that focused on the events of September 2010, when Correa was taken hostage briefly by protesting policemen. Four security officers died when they raided the hospital to free the president. A fifth person died at a separate location.

In his February 2011 editorial, columnist Emilio Palacio suggested that a future president could press criminal charges against Correa for ordering troops to attack a hospital filled with innocent civilians.

Correa sued for libel and on Feb. 16, Ecuador's high courts ratified Paredes' sentence, issuing three-year jail terms for Palacio and the executives and ordering them to pay $42 million. Palacio is seeking political asylum in South Florida, and the director of the paper has been granted asylum in Panama.

On Wednesday, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a preliminary injunction, asking the government to suspend the sentence until a hearing on March 28.

Correa called the IAHRC decision illegitimate and said the body was being used as a political bludgeon.

But he also suggested a pardon may be in the works. In a press conference Wednesday, he said he would be issuing an open letter, explaining why he pursued the case.

"We never wanted to put anyone in jail or receive 20 cents," he said. "We just wanted to prove that they were lying ... The corrupt press has been defeated."

Correa has repeatedly said he would drop the case if the newspaper would admit it was wrong. He has also pledged to give any money from the verdict to the Yasuni-ITT environmental project.

The case has been condemned around the world by free speech and human rights groups. On Thursday, more than 30 Colombian newspapers reprinted Palacio's column.

In a letter reprinted in El Tiempo newspaper, Ecuador's ambassador to Colombia, Raul Vallejo Corral, defended the government's actions, saying the courts had found on three separate occasions that the column stepped over the line.

"What Emilio Palacio and El Universo wrote was not an opinion but a serious accusation, including crimes against humanity," Vallejo wrote. "Having repeatedly refused to correct their error, and due to the gravity of the accusations, this had to go before the legal system."

But Encalada said the courts were under Correa's thumb from the start. When she was first assigned the case in a lottery, Encalada said she received a call from Correa's lawyers.

She claims she was told "Number One is happy because he says he gets along well with ladies and that they are tougher than men." She also claims they told her that Vera, the president's lawyer, "doesn't sleep because he's been working on the sentence for two weeks" and that she would be paid for passing off the document as her own.

Encalada said she was relieved when the case was taken off her hands. But since she provided a sworn statement contradicting Paredes, she and her family have been pilloried in the state-run press and received anonymous threats, she said. The human rights group handling her case said she is likely to pursue political asylum in Colombia or some other nation.

"It wasn't possible to turn to the government of Ecuador for help," Encalada wrote in her application to the IAHRC. "Because that's what I'm fleeing from, like I was running from the law."

Read more here:

Miami Herald (Estados Unidos)


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