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(Washington, DC) - President Rafael Correa's efforts to prosecute his critics for defamation under criminal law is a serious blow to free expression in Ecuador, Human Rights Watch said today. Ecuador should repeal the defamation provisions in its criminal code, Human Rights Watch said. 

On March 21, 2011, President Correa filed a criminal libel suit against a journalist, Emilio Palacio, and three members of the board of directors of the Guayaquil-based newspaper El Universo - Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Barriga. He asked the court to sentence each of the men to three years in prison and to fine them US$50 million. He also sought $30 million from the company that owns the paper.

"President Correa's efforts to prosecute critics are a direct assault on free speech," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "In a democratic system, presidents shouldn't be using criminal law to block public debate over their actions and policies."

Correa contends in his suit that an opinion piece by Palacio "on purpose, immorally, and maliciously insults [him], with the only intention of affecting [his] prestige, honor, and good name."

The opinion piece, "No to lies" (No a las mentiras), published in El Universo on February 6, refers to Correa as "the Dictator." It criticizes Correa for considering pardoning those involved in a police rebellion in September 2010 - called a coup attempt by the government - in which Correa was held hostage for several hours in a police hospital. Palacio accused Correa of ordering his forces to fire on the hospital, which was "full of civilians and innocent people." Palacio concluded, "Crimes against humanity, don't you forget, are not subject to statutes of limitation."

In his criminal complaint, Correa accused Palacio and the three El Universo directors of committing libel against public officials (injuria calumniosa contra autoridad pública). Article 493 of the Ecuadorian Criminal Code states that anyone who falsely attributes the commission of a crime to a public official will be subject to a prison sentence of up to three years.

The case is currently before a criminal judge in the province of Guayas.

International human rights bodies have long criticized the use of criminal defamation for allegations involving public officials, in the interest of promoting the vibrant public debate necessary in a democratic society. The Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000 assert that protection of the reputation of public officials should be guaranteed only by civil sanctions.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has held that public officials "who have voluntarily exposed themselves to greater public scrutiny are subject to greater risks of being criticized, since their activities are ... part of the public debate."  The honor of public officials or public people must be legally protected, the court says, but that must be accomplished "in accordance with principles of democratic pluralism." The use of criminal proceedings for defamation must therefore be limited to cases of "extreme gravity" as a "truly exceptional measure" where its "absolute necessity" has been demonstrated, and that in any such case the burden of proof must rest with the accuser.

In 2007, the Mexican Congress decriminalized defamation at the federal level. In June 2009, Uruguay eliminated criminal sanctions against those who publish opinions or information about public officials or issues of public interest. In November 2009, Argentina eliminated criminal penalties in cases involving information of public interest. In December 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation.

"While other countries in the region are moving toward decriminalizing defamation to comply with international standards, President Correa is taking Ecuador precisely in the opposite direction," Vivanco said.

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