MIAMI — A former Ecuadorean newspaper columnist who faces prison and millions of dollars in fines for his criticism of President Rafael Correa requested asylum Wednesday in the U.S., claiming he is the victim of persecution aimed at stifling free expression.
Emilio Palacio, 58, said in an asylum application that a criminal libel judgment against him in his homeland shows he "is being severely punished in Ecuador for expressing legitimate opinions and subjective interpretations of factual events."
A four-hour, closed-door hearing was held Wednesday in Miami before U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services officials regarding his request but a decision isn't likely for weeks or possibly months, said Palacio's attorney Sandra Grossman. Palacio said he was optimistic about the outcome.
"I am convinced that the case has its foundation," he said.
Palacio was formerly the chief opinion writer for Ecuador's opposition newspaper El Universo. Palacio, the paper's three owners and the newspaper itself were fined $42 million because of a February 2011 column titled "No To Lies." The four men were also sentenced to three years each in prison.
The column, which referred to Correa as "the Dictator," raised questions about a September 2010 rescue of the president by an army unit during a violent police revolt. Correa responded with a libel suit, which was strongly condemned by international human rights and free speech groups as part of a campaign by Correa to silence legitimate expression and intimidate opposition.
"This case is much bigger than just Emilio," Grossman said.
The Inter-American Press Association, for example, called the president's actions "a systematic and hostile campaign to do away with the independent press." Similar claims have been leveled against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Correa's.
Correa, on the other hand, hailed the verdict as a victory for responsible journalism.
"We're making history, my friends, we won't retreat," Correa said after the initial verdict.
Ecuador's consul in Miami, Eduardo Rivadeneira, said there are no grounds for Palacio to win U.S. asylum and noted that the case involving El Universo remains under appeal. None of the others involved are in prison at this time.
"Mr. Emilio Palacio is not being politically persecuted as he claims. Mr. Palacio is free to return with his family to the country today, tomorrow or whenever he pleases," Rivadeneira said in a statement.
Palacio, who fled to Miami in August with his family, said in his asylum petition that he has received threats from Ecuadoreans allied with Correa. One email said: "I hope you come back in a coffin and your wretched children be assassinated."
The application claims the libel prosecution was a farce, noting that a temporary judge held a single hearing and issued a 156-page ruling only 33 hours after taking the case. A U.S. computer security investigator concluded the ruling was not written on the judge's computer and had been transferred from another computer, according to Palacio's application.
Also last year, Correa sued two Ecuadorean journalists who said in a book in 2010 – "The Big Brother" – that companies owned by the president's older brother had won $600 million in state contracts, primarily for road construction. Contrary to the book's claims, Correa says he was unaware of the contracts.
An Ecuadorean judge on Tuesday ordered the two journalists to pay $1 million each to the president because their book had offended Correa's "honor" and "professional prestige." One of the journalists, Juan Carlos Calderon, called the verdict "absurd."
Correa also added a proposal to a May 7 referendum about restricting news media ownership and creating a government oversight panel that would regulate news media content for "excesses." Ecuadoreans backed that and the nine other proposals on the referendum.
Ecuador's highest appellate court is scheduled to hear another appeal in the criminal libel case involving Palacio on Friday.
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