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Ecuador5 December 2008

Journalist serving six-month sentence for slandering ex-mayor now being sued for a million dollars

Reporters Without Borders condemns the judicial harassment of Freddy Aponte Aponte, a journalist based in the southern city of Loja who works for a local privately-owned radio station, Luz y Vida. After being given a six-month jail sentence on 25 September for allegedly slandering a former mayor of Loja, he has just learned in prison that the ex-mayor is now suing him for a million dollars in damages.

“Aponte is known for his impetuosity and loose tongue, but the imposition of a six-month prison sentence on a slander charge had already posed a serious problem, especially as he was convicted despite a lack of evidence and despite having first been acquitted,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“The fact that he is now being prosecuted a second time for the same alleged offence violates a basic principle of law,” the press freedom organisation added. “Failing a revision of his existing conviction, we call for his prison sentence to be suspended and for this new damages suit to be abandoned.”

Former Loja major José Bolivar Castillo Vivanco filed a complaint against Aponte after Aponte interviewed former legislator Oswaldo Burneo on the “Primer plano” programme on 18 June 2007. Aponte reportedly called Castillo a “thief” during the interview but, for technical reasons, that part of the interview could not be broadcast. A Loja criminal court therefore dismissed the case in January of this year on the grounds of a lack of evidence.

Castillo appealed to the provincial criminal court, which quashed the lower court’s decision on 9 April and sentenced Aponte to six months in prison. Aponte appealed to the national court of justice (Ecuador’s highest court), which finally upheld the sentence on 25 September. Aponte turned himself in to the authorities on 29 October after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. He is currently serving the sentence in the Loja Social Rehabilitation Centre.

Aponte challenged his conviction on the grounds of a series of irregularities. He pointed out the existence of family ties between Castillo and one of the provincial criminal court’s judges. He pointed out that no evidence of the slander was ever produced. And he voiced surprise that Burneo, the legislator he interviewed, was never called to testify.

Aponte also claimed that, on the day of the guilty verdict, he received a threatening telephone text message from Castillo saying: “Wretch, if you do not leave this city, this province, I won’t stop until you are dead.” This incident and the judicial irregularities were confirmed by the programme’s producer, Sor Violeta Jaramillo, who attributed Aponte’s conviction to the “former mayor’s influence and power.” Castillo’s million-dollar suit against Aponte was filed on 25 November.

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