(Updates with government response in first three paragraphs.)
Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Ecuador rejected a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend sentences against the nation’s biggest-circulation newspaper because of a clerical error in the commission’s request.
The commission used the wrong date in its letter requesting punishments be dropped against the daily El Universo, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters today in Quito. The commission should have referenced a court ruling from Feb. 16, not Feb. 15, he said.
“There is a sentence about the case, but it wasn’t dictated on Feb. 15,” Patino said, adding the Ecuadorean government was never officially notified the commission was considering the measures.
The commission, part of the Organization of American States, has said the sentences may constitute “irreparable damages” to free speech. It issued a “precautionary injunction” last night to halt enforcement of a court ruling against an editor at El Universo and its owners until a hearing between the parties on March 28, said Nicolas Perez, one of the newspaper’s owners.
The statement may add to pressure on President Rafael Correa amid allegations he is weakening press freedoms. Ecuador’s highest judicial authority last week sentenced the El Universo group to pay a total of $40 million in fines and three years in prison each for libel against Correa in an opinion article published last year. The newspaper alleges the verdict was written by Correa’s own lawyer.
“We are extraordinarily grateful to the commission for this decision, which is a milestone in our battle for freedom of the press,” Perez said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday.
The OAS, as the Washington-based organization is known, didn’t reply today to telephone messages seeking comment.
Calls for Probe
The El Universo article by Emilo Palacio criticized Correa, an ally of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his role in suppressing a September 2010 protest in which security forces opened fire on a hospital in an attempt to free the president, who was trapped inside by rioters. Correa has denied any wrongdoing.
The subsequent court ruling has been criticized by local and international rights group, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
During the appeals process, the newspaper accused Correa’s lawyer, Gutemberg Vera, of secretly writing the ruling against the defendants. Universo’s lawyers claim a forensic analysis of the ruling shows it was written on a pirated copy of Microsoft Word, known as Chucky Seven, not installed on the court’s computer systems.
Monica Encalada, a judge who briefly oversaw the case before the ruling last year, made the same allegations against Correa’s lawyer last week and then fled the country, saying she feared for her life, according to a statement and video of Encalada disseminated by El Universo’s lawyers.
Vera responded by accusing Encalada of corruption and said that if her claims are true, she committed a crime for not speaking up sooner.
Correa, while denying the allegations, called for an investigation into Encalada’s accusations, according to a statement published Feb. 18 in the president’s official gazette.
Palacio has sought refuge in the U.S. while Carlos Perez, brother of Nicolas, was granted political asylum in Panama last week following the ruling. Nicolas and another brother, Cesar, also fled and are in the U.S. awaiting the commission’s decision.
--Editors: Philip Sanders, Jonathan Roeder
To contact the reporter on this story: Nathan Gill in Quito at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at email@example.com.