QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador's highest court upheld early Thursday a criminal libel verdict favoring President Rafael Correa, sentencing three newspaper executives and a columnist to three years in prison each and ordering them to pay a total of $42 million in damages.
The defendants, joined by international press freedom and human rights groups, had called the case a cynical attempt by Correa to bankrupt the country's leading opposition newspaper, El Universo, and part of a concerted campaign to stifle free speech and silence critics.
After a 13 1/2-hour hearing on Wednesday, the three-judge panel of the National Court of Justice deliberated nearly two hours before ratifying the verdict, which is not subject to appeal.
Correa was present both for the ruling and during Wednesday's entire hearing.
The defendants had called the case a farce and accused Correa of subverting the legal system, including allowing his attorney to write the original ruling.
Groups including Human Rights Watch have decried criminal defamation laws such as Ecuador's, which they say give politicians such as Correa immense power to crush dissent.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that the ruling "represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador."
Before final deliberations began, Judge Wilson Merino asked both sides if they had reached a resolution.
The defendants' attorney, Monica Vargas, said the Guayaquil-based newspaper "has always been open" to a solution.
But Correa said "in the face of such dirty tricks at this point in time an apology cannot be accepted."
Correa said he had no choice but to file suit to defend himself against false accusations in a column by 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.
Three of the four defendants left Ecuador before the verdict, saying they feared for their safety. Only El Universo's director, Carlos Perez, was apparently still in the country.
In a statement, he called the verdict "particularly alarming because it 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."
His brothers Nicolas and Cesar, the paper's new media manager and deputy director, were in Miami along with Emilio Palacio, the columnist and former opinion page editor of the newspaper.
Correa said 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."
Vargas said the sentence "in no way closes the case."
The defendants said in a statement issued early Thursday that they would continue to publish as long as they are able and had already sought a "preliminary injunction" with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous panel based in Washington, D.C., that would order Ecuador to suspend execution of the sentence pending a full review.
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 press freedom director of the Inter-American Press Association, Ricardo Trotti, said Wednesday in Miami at a news conference with Nicolas and Cesar Perez that the sentence, first handed down in July, was "completely repressive and disproportionate."
The Perez brothers said they were considering seeking political asylum in the United States, which Palacio last week announced that he had requested.
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 or offending Correa's "honor" and "professional prestige" by claiming he was aware that his older brother had some $600 million in government countracts, primarily for road construction.
Correa has also succeeded in winning through a ballot question last year a constitutional provision restricting news media ownership and creating 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 writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.