QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador's highest court on Wednesday heard 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. He has called the trial a farce and suggested Correa had unduly influenced the judiciary to get the desired verdict.
Rights groups have decried the case as part of a concerted campaign by Correa to stifle free speech and silence his critics.
Correa attended Wednesday's hearing, which lasted 13½ hours before the three judges began deliberations. It was not clear when they might issue a verdict.
In a news conference he held Wednesday inside the courtroom, Correa called the case "a trial by fire for the justice system" and suggested it could set a regional precedent. Correa's leftist allies in Latin America, chiefly President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, have also often wrestled with aggressive opposition media.
Corea also called for his followers outside to remain vigilant so that "definitive justice is done today." 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.
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 that claimed at least five lives.
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.
The El Universo directors and columnist 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.