Quito: Ecuador`s highest court upheld early Thursday a criminal libel verdict favouring President Rafael Correa, including three-year prison terms for three executives and a columnist of the opposition newspaper El Universo, and a total of USD 42 million in damages.
The defendants, joined by international press freedom and human rights groups, have called the case a blatant attempt by Correa to bankrupt the paper and part of a concerted campaign by Ecuador`s populist President to stifle free speech and silence critics.
After a 13 1/2-hour final hearing, the three-judge panel of the National Court of Justice deliberated nearly two hours before ratifying the verdict, which was first handed down in July and ratified by an appeals court last month.
Correa was present for the ruling and had attended Wednesday`s hearing.
At the hearing`s end, Judge Wilson Merino asked both sides if they had reached conciliation.
The defendant`s attorney, Monica Vargas, said El Universo "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`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.