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Journalist flees Ecuador to evade prison sentence

MIAMI (Reuters) - An outspoken critic of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has fled to Miami while a prison sentence against him for libeling the fiery left-wing leader was on appeal.

Ecuadorean journalist Emilio Palacio, an outspoken critic of President Rafael Correa's government and a columnist for El Universo Newspaper, is seen in this undated handout file photo. REUTERS/Angel Aguirre/El Universo/Handout/Files

Emilio Palacio, a former op-ed editor at the El Universo newspaper said on Sunday he left his South American homeland because the government wants him “behind bars.”

On July 21, Palacio and three board members of El Universo were sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $40 million fine, over a column that criticized how Correa had handled a police mutiny in September 2010.

A judge ruled the column libeled Correa because it accused the president of ordering troops to fire at a hospital where police were holding him hostage, without warning civilians who were in the building at the time.

The decision adhered to an article from Ecuador’s penal code that punishes anyone who “falsely accuses” a public official of a crime. But it was drew pointed criticism from media watchdogs and human rights groups, who said Ecuador has limited press freedoms since Correa, an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, came to power in 2007.

“The criminal conviction of the president’s critics is a major setback for free speech in Ecuador.” said Human Rights Watch America’s director Jose Miguel Vivanco, following the sentence. “Punishing a journalist and directors of a newspaper for ‘offending’ the president is likely to have a very negative impact on the news media and public debate in Ecuador.”

El Universo’s lawyers are appealing the verdict, but in an email sent to his supporters on Sunday, Palacio said he had fled to Miami because he feared he would not get a fair hearing from Ecuador’s judiciary.

“They wanted to impose a judge who is one of the most intimate friends of the dictator’s (Correa’s) lawyer,” Palacio wrote in his email. He said officials were also pressing new libel charges against him, for describing state television journalists as “fascists” at the service of the government.

Privately owned newspapers and television channels in Ecuador are mostly aligned with the country’s opposition.

In a national referendum in May, Correa narrowly secured public support for a law that limits media ownership. It also sets up a panel that will regulate media content.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

This article has been modified to correct paragraph 5 to make clear decision adhered to the penal code, not the constitution