QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador's highest court on Wednesday began hearing the final appeal in a criminal libel case filed by President Rafael Correa in which three executives and a columnist of the opposition newspaper El Universo were each sentenced to three years in prison.
The defendants were also appealing awards totaling $42 million that they said represented an effort by Correa to bankrupt the paper.
Two of them, Nicolas and Cesar Perez, said from Miami that they fled there fearing for their personal safety. The columnist, Emilio Palacio, announced last week he is seeking political asylum in the United States.
Rights groups have decried the case as an attempt by Correa to stifle free speech.
Correa attended Wednesday's hearing, which continued into the night as el Universo's lawyers were to be followed in presenting arguments by those representing the president.
Correa's backers scuffled with defenders of El Universo outside the courthouse on Wednesday morning. The president's supporters struck at least three journalists and burned issues of El Universo and another newspaper, El Comercio.
Correa says he is only defending himself against false accusations in a column by Palacio published by El Universo.
The column 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.
The press freedom director of the Inter-American Press Association, Ricardo Trotti, said Wednesday at Miami at a news conference with Nicolas and Cesar Perez that the sentence appealed was "completely repressive and disproportionate."
The Perezes, brothers who are the paper's deputy director and manager of new media, said they were considering seeking political asylum in the United States but had not yet decided.
Carlos Perez, a third brother who is El Universo's director, remained in Ecuador, they said.