House arrest for editor named in defamation suit

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New York, August 14, 2000 — A Venezuelan judge ordered that Caracas journalist Pablo López, editor-in-chief of the weekly La Razón, be placed under house arrest for failing to attend a court-scheduled August 4 hearing in a criminal-defamation suit filed against La Razón by prominent Venezuelan businessman Tobías Carrero.

The order was issued August 4; López is currently a fugitive, according to CPJ sources and local press reports.

In September 1999, La Razón columnist Santiago Alcalá published articles alleging that favoritism had driven the awarding of government contracts to Carrero’s insurance company Multinacional de Seguros, as well as the auctioning of state-owned radio stations to a media company that Carrero controls.

Carrero has close ties with President Hugo Chávez, and is also a friend and business partner of National Legislative Assembly president Luis Miquilena.

In October 1999, Carrero filed charges against the weekly and its editor under Article 444 of Venezuela’s criminal code, claiming that La Razón‘s coverage had damaged his honor and reputation and those of Multinacional de Seguros.

On July 8, 2000, presiding judge David Pérez issued a house-arrest warrant against López for skipping five consecutive court hearings in the suit filed by Carrero. According to his defense lawyers, the journalist boycotted the hearings to protest alleged violations of procedural rules and Judge Pérez’s alleged bias.

Two days later, Chief Court Inspector René Molina called on Judge Pérez to recuse himself from the case, citing his “evident partiality” and violations of due process. On July 12, Judge Pérez complied. The case was then transferred to Judge Graudy Villegas. The next day, Judge Villegas revoked the house-arrest order against López and set a new court hearing for August 4. (Read CPJ’s July 17 protest letter to President Chávez.)

On August 4, López again boycotted the scheduled court hearing. Instead he filed an amparo (a writ asserting that an individual’s rights are threatened by government agencies or the judiciary) before the Appeals Court.

According to López’s attorney, Omar Estacio, the amparo was intended to allow López’s defense lawyers to gather evidence in the United States about an alleged trip to Boston that Carrero, Miquilena, and then-interior minister Ignacio Arcaya took in Carrero’s airplane this past January, according to La Razón‘s reporting. In his suit against La Razón, Carrero denied that this trip had ever taken place. But in a previous ruling delivered August 1, Judge Villegas rejected the defense’s request that they be allowed to investigate the matter.

According to Estacio, Judge Villegas’s August 4 house-arrest order violated “basic rules of criminal procedure, which do not expressly prescribe house arrest for contempt.” Estacio claims to have received anonymous threats for defending López.

On August 9, the Appeals Court rejected López’s writ of amparo. The journalist’s current whereabouts are unknown.