Supreme Court upholds sentence against journalist

New York, November 11, 2004—Ecuador’s Supreme Court of Justice upheld the conviction of columnist Rodrigo Fierro Benítez on criminal defamation charges, the Committee to Protect Journalists has learned. The Supreme Court then suspended Fierro’s sentence.

On October 29, a three-judge Supreme Court panel upheld the one-month prison sentence against Fierro, a columnist for the Quito-based daily El Comercio who, in September 2003, had been convicted of criminal defamation after writing a piece that criticized former president and current parliamentary deputy León Febres-Cordero.

The judges then suspended Fierro’s sentence, based on Article 82 of Ecuador’s Penal Code, which grants such benefit provided that the person convicted does not have a criminal record and that the prison sentence given is no longer than six months. They also cited the fact that Fierro was more than 70 years old.

“CPJ protests this shortsighted ruling, which will only discourage Ecuadoran journalists from criticizing powerful politicians,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We urge Ecuadoran authorities to bring their laws into line with international freedom of expression standards.”

Both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, both arms of the Organization of American States, have challenged the compatibility of criminal defamation laws with the guarantees of freedom of expression contained in the American Convention on Human Rights.

In June 2003, Febres-Cordero filed a criminal lawsuit against Fierro after he wrote an article accusing the former president of colluding with other politicians and businessmen to advance the interests of the local business elite. Claiming that his and family’s reputation had been damaged, Febres-Cordero requested a two-year prison sentence for Fierro-the maximum allowed under the Penal Code-and damages of US$1 million. On September 19, 2003, a judge convicted Fierro of defamation, sentenced him to six months in prison, and ordered him to pay US$1,000 in legal fees to Febres-Cordero’s lawyer.

On September 22, Fierro appealed his sentence before the Quito Superior Court of Justice, which on December 12 upheld the lower-court ruling but reduced Fierro’s sentence to 30 days in prison and reduced the legal fees payable to Febres-Cordero’s lawyer to US$100. The court further ruled that the damages sought by Febres-Cordero should be assessed in a future civil trial.

On December 15, Fierro asked the Quito Superior Court of Justice to suspend the execution of his sentence, based on Article 82 of the Penal Code, but on January 9, 2004, this court dismissed Fierro’s request.

On January 12, 2004, Fierro filed an appeal for annulment (recurso de casación) before the Supreme Court, which within several days admitted the appeal. On July 5, the Supreme Court heard Fierro’s case.