Panamanian journalist sentenced to two years in prison

New York, April 30, 2009–A Panama City court has sentenced leading Panamanian journalist Jean Marcel Chéry to two years in prison on trespassing charges stemming from a years-long series of complaints filed by a Supreme Court justice. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Justice Winston Spadafora to end his politically motivated harassment.

Judge Ricardo Mazza Moreno of the Second Criminal Circuit of the Third Judicial Circuit in Panama City also fined Chéry, director of the Panama City-based daily El Siglo, US$1,000 for trespassing on Spadafora’s property. The sentence was imposed on February 4, according to records reviewed by CPJ, but Chéry said he was not notified until Wednesday.

The journalist told CPJ that would appeal the decision. He is free pending appeal.

In earlier court proceedings, Chéry said security guards had given him, a photographer, and another reporter permission to enter Spadafora’s property to examine the construction of a nearby road. In a March 18, 2001 article published in the Panama City-based daily El Panamá América, Chéry claimed that Spadafora, then-minister of government and justice, had used public funds to build the road for personal benefit.

Spadafora has pursued other complaints related to the story. In 2001, Spadafora filed a criminal defamation complaint and a civil insult lawsuit against Chéry and two other journalists, Chéry told CPJ. In 2004, Chéry and colleague Gustavo Aparicio were each sentenced to a year in prison on defamation charges, but outgoing President Mireya Moscoso pardoned them two months later, according to CPJ research. The civil suit against Chéry, Aparicio, and the Panamá América publishing company is still pending.

“The prison sentence against Jean Marcel Chéry follows a pattern of judicial harassment,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “We believe the appeals court, upon review of the evidence, will overturn the sentence and put an end to the legal persecution of Chéry.”