Quito: A judge in Ecuador has convicted three newspaper executives and an editor of libel, sentenced them to three-year jail terms and handed a USD 40 million damages award to President Rafael Correa.
It was a dramatic close to the latest chapter in the elected leftist`s long fight against the South American country`s media.
Correa had sought USD 80 million in damages, but the punishment by local standards was no mere slap on a wrist.
The President personally attended the opening of proceedings on Tuesday held in the steamy coastal city of Guayaquil, as did the El Universo newspaper`s top leadership Carlos Perez, Cesar Perez and Nicolas Perez.
Also on hand was former editorial page editor, Emilio Palacio. It was one of his editorials that led the leftist president to file suit for libel.
Nicolas Perez tweeted on Wednesday that Judge Juan Paredes had given three-year prison sentences to the four accused: him, Carlos Perez, Cesar Perez and Emilio Palacio.
They were ordered to pay USD 30 million amongst them, in addition to another USD 10 million in damages that were ordered paid by El Universo.
The ruling was returned swiftly -- just a day after the final hearing in the case was opened and final arguments were heard for six hours. The judge had four days to make a decision.
The newspaper earlier tried to reach an out-of-court settlement with the President. But Correa turned it down saying his best legacy would be to show Ecuadorans that "we can defend ourselves against the abuses of the press”.
The newspaper had agreed to print a correction, and suggested Correa write the text himself so he would be satisfied, the owners said in a letter.
But Correa`s attorney Alembert Vera turned down the offer.
The President filed suit March 21 after an editorial in which Palacio called the elected leader a "dictator”.
The column also said Correa should be tried for crimes against humanity for allegedly having given the order for authorities to open fire on a hospital during a police rebellion on September 30 in which the President was briefly held against his will.
Correa said that during the revolt, sparked by police demanding pay increases, opposition forces tried to topple and kill him. At least 10 people were killed in the uprising and related unrest.
The President also filed suit in February for USD 10 million in damages against reporters Juan Carlos Calderon and Christian Zurita, who wrote a critical book "Big Brother”.
Like his regional ally leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Correa has used referendums to increase his presidential powers.
Correa won a vote on 10 reforms, including controversial measures to regulate Ecuador`s judiciary and media in a May 07 vote -- moves criticised by the opposition as a power grab and a threat to freedom of expression.