Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio -- sentenced last year to three years in prison for denouncing President Rafael Correa -- has been granted political asylum here in the United States.
Palacio announced the news this morning during a press conference with his lawyers. He pointed out, however, that he received notice of the decision just 24 hours after Correa had controversially granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum in Ecuador.
"It's curious... but I'll let people draw their own conclusions from that," he said of the timing. "I'm just so happy. I can now legally get on with my life and my work."
In February of 2011, Palacio wrote a scathing editorial in El Universo newspaper in which he called Correa a "dictator" and suggesting that the president by put in prison for allegedly ordering police officers to open fire on civilians.
Correa was outraged over the article and publicly accused Palacio and three others at the paper of defamation. An Ecuadorian court later sentenced Palacio to three years in prison and ordered El Universo to pay a $40 million fine. Instead, Palacio fled to Miami and filed for asylum, citing persecution for his political beliefs and membership in independent media.
Palacio's lawyer, Sandra Grossman, said today that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services didn't specify on what grounds her client was granted asylum, but that the August 17 decision reflected "a clear recognition by the U.S. government that he has been a victim of persecution on the part of Ecuador and its president Rafael Correa."
Grossman also called Palacio's Ecuadorian trial "a highly irregular and politically motivated process." (This February, Correa finally pardoned Palacio and his co-workers.)
Although Palacio said he was overjoyed with the decision, he viewed it less as a personal triumph and more as "backing for the freedom of expression in Ecuador." He said that fear of prosecution has led many Ecuadorian journalists to censor themselves, and claimed that several high-profile reporters were currently targets of government prosecution.
"When I was in Ecuador, I couldn't write what I thought for fear of going to jail," Palacio said. "My colleagues in Ecuador are still suffering every day. This [decision] is also for them."
Most of the questions to Palacio focused on the similarity between his case and that of Julian Assange, who has been offered asylum by Correa if he is ever able to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Surprisingly, however, Palacio said he wasn't in favor of the Australian hacker receiving asylum in the oil-rich South American country.
"I think political asylum has to be treated seriously," he said. "Political asylum should not be granted or denied on a whim or an opinion. You need proof."
"There you have 1,200 pages of evidence," Palacio said, pointing to a phone-book-thick stack of papers on a desk. "I don't know what evidence there is the case of Julian Assange. The Ecuadorian government hasn't shown anything or argued anything other than generalities about 'North American imperialism' and death threats. So I can't support a political asylum case that is based in nothing more than speculation."
"On the day of the first sentence against me, two or three hundred people threw everything at me and chased me through the streets for 10 blocks," Palacio said. "I haven't heard of anything like that happening to Julian Assange."