Ecuadorean journalist granted asylum in Miami

MIAMI (Reuters) - A newspaper columnist who fled Ecuador after he was sentenced to jail and ordered to pay millions of dollars in a libel case pushed by President Rafael Correa has been granted asylum in the United States, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Ecuadorean newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio speaks with the media after meeting with officials at the U.S. Immigration Services Asylum Office in Miami, Florida February 8, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Emilio Palacio, a columnist at El Universo, one of Ecuador’s leading newspapers, has been living in Miami since last year. He applied for asylum claiming he was a victim of political persecution.

“It’s been a long road for him and his family,” said Palacio’s lawyer, Sandra Grossman.

Last year, a court in Ecuador sentenced Palacio and three owners of El Universo to prison and ordered them to pay $40 million in damages, a sum that stunned global media watchdogs.

In February, Correa threw out the sentences, saying in a televised speech he had decided to “pardon the accused and grant them remission of the sentences that they rightly received.”

In its case against Palacio, the government cited a 2011 opinion piece he wrote titled “No To Lies” which referred to Correa as “the Dictator” and criticized his actions during a bloody police revolt a year earlier.

News that Palacio had been granted asylum comes amid diplomatic tensions between Ecuador and Britain over the fate of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.

The 41-year-old Australian was granted asylum by the Correa government earlier this month on the grounds he might be a victim of political persecution.

Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than two months in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sexual assault and rape allegations.

Correa shares Assange’s fears that from Sweden the former computer hacker could be further extradited to the United States, where he could face charges stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare Washington’s powerbroking across the globe.

Upon granting asylum to Assange, the Ecuadorean government argued that legal evidence showed he would not get a fair trial if eventually transferred to the United States.

State-run media have for weeks run stories portraying Assange as a champion of media freedom.

However, tensions have steadily mounted between Correa, a leftist who took office in 2007, and many of Ecuador’s leading privately owned media. He faces accusations from some press freedom watchdogs that he uses the courts to muzzle the media, a charge he denies.

Correa argues that many media outlets in the Andean country are controlled by a handful of families who have ties with opposition politicians and are bent on undermining support for his government.

Additional reporting by Eduardo Garcia in Quito; writing by Kevin Gray; editing by Todd Eastham