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(Washington,DC) - The conviction of President Rafael Correa's critics for criminal defamation violates Ecuador's international human rights obligations and should be overturned on appeal, Human Rights Watch said today. Ecuador should abolish the defamation provisions in its criminal code, Human Rights Watch said. 

On July 20, 2011, a judge in Guayas province sentenced each of the four to three years in prison and ordered a total of US$40 million in fines against the men and the newspaper, El Universo, based in Guayaquil. The men are Emilio Palacio, a journalist, and three members of the newspaper's board of directors, Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Barriga.

"The criminal conviction of the president's critics is a major setback for free speech in Ecuador," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Punishing a journalist and directors of a newspaper for ‘offending' the president is likely to have a very negative impact on the news media and public debate in Ecuador."

Correa had filed a criminal defamation suit in March contending 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.

Correa's lawyer said he would appeal the decision, seeking a higher monetary sanction, according to press accounts. El Universo's lawyer told Human Rights Watch they will request a higher court to overturn the conviction.

Under the Ecuadorian Constitution rights protected under international law and treaties, such as the right to freedom of expression, are directly enforceable by the courts. Human Rights Watch said that the convictions should be set aside on appeal as incompatible with freedom of expression as guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Ecuador is a party to.

In the interest of promoting the vibrant public debate necessary in a democratic society, international human rights bodies have long criticized the use of criminal defamation charges in response to allegations involving public officials. 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.

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