By GONZALO SOLANO, Associated Press
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — President Rafael Correa said Thursday he was considering a pardon for Ecuador's main opposition newspaper after the nation's highest court upheld a $42 million criminal libel verdict against it.
Correa told reporters he would consult with his closest political allies about whether to forgive El Universo the debt and nullify the three-year prison terms meted out to the three executives and former opinion page editor found to have offended him.
With Thursday's decision by the National Court of Justice, Correa said he achieved his goal of proving El Universo lied and letting Ecuadoreans know it is necessary to defend against the "abuses of certain media."
The ruling, widely criticized by human rights groups, is not subject to appeal.
El Universo's director was reported to have taken asylum in the Panamanian Embassy on Thursday. The other three defendants had previously left the country.
International press freedom groups accused Correa of trying to bankrupt El Universo as part of a campaign to stifle free speech and silence critics. The paper's owners say Correa leveraged his power to subvert the legal system in the case, allowing his attorney to write last July's original lower-court ruling.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that the court ruling "represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador."
It says, along with groups including Human Rights Watch, that criminal defamation laws such as Ecuador's give politicians immense power to crush dissent.
But Correa says such laws are necessary to prevent abuses by powerful business interests that often align themselves with major media outlets.
Correa had filed suit over allegations in a column by opinion page editor Emilio 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 being roughed up by riotous police and the army rescued him from armed insurgents who he said had surrounded the building.
Correa says he never ordered anyone to open fire on the hospital, though one of the day's fatalities was a police officer shot to death while helping to spirit the president out of the hospital in an SUV.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli announced Thursday he was granting political asylum to El Universo's director, Carlos Perez.
The director's brother, Cesar, said in Miami that his brother had taken asylum in the Panamanian Embassy in Quito. A third brother, Nicolas, was also in Miami.
Both said on Wednesday that they fled their out of concern for their physical safety and were considering seeking asylum, as Palacio has.
Earlier Thursday, Carlos Perez said the verdict had "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," he added in a statement.
Cesar Perez said El Universo would continue to publish and is able to pay the $10 million in damages ordered by the trial court.
He said the other $30 million in damages had been levied against the three Perez brothers and Palacios in equal parts along with another $2 million in court costs.
The defendants said they have asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous panel based in Washington, D.C., to order Ecuador to suspend execution of the sentence pending a full review.
Correa said earlier Thursday that the verdict would "change history." ''This creates a precedent not just for Ecuador but also in all of our America(s)," he said.
Correa's leftist allies in Latin America, chiefly President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, have also been accused of using heavy-handed tactics against aggressive opposition media that they have called representatives of an oligarchy opposed to their efforts to impose "21st-century socialism."
With a 70 percent approval rating, Correa is among Latin America's most popular leaders thanks in part to an array of state-funded programs that have brought stability to a traditionally unruly nation.
His support was on display outside the courthouse Wednesday as his backers scuffled with defenders of El Universo, struck at least three journalists and burned issues of El Universo and another newspaper, El Comercio.
The El Universo team are not the only journalists Correa has attacked in the courts.
Last week, a judge ordered two journalists to pay $1 million each to the president for offending Correa's honor and professional prestige by claiming he was aware that his older brother had some $600 million in government contracts, primarily for road construction.
Voters also gave Correa a win last year by approving ballot questions to bar news media owners from holdings in other business sectors and create a government oversight panel that would regulate news media content for "excesses."
And he further angered press freedom advocates by winning congressional approval of a law that bars the news media from broadcasting or publishing any material that could influence opinions about candidates or proposals during election campaigns.
Associated Press writers Gisela Salamon in Miami, Juan Zamorano in Panama City, and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.