The verdict in Costa Rica’s first trial for an assassinated journalist? Impunity. At least that is the fear expressed by many who watched this week as the only suspects in the murder of Costa Rican business reporter Ivannia Mora were set free Monday on technicalities.
“We are very worried about the possibility that a case as serious as this one might go unpunished,” Eduardo Ulibarri, director of the Institute for Freedom of Press, Expression and Public Information (IPLEX), told The Tico Times Tuesday. “The sentence has not yet been made public, but it looks very serious to us – that a situation of this nature could remain unpunished without even knowing who did it and what their causes were.”
Mora was killed by two men on a motorcycle the night of Dec. 23, 2003, as she sat in traffic in Curridabat, east of San José. The assailants shot the 33-year-old journalist twice through her closed driver side window before speeding off through the heavy holiday traffic (TT, Jan. 9, 2004). Mora is survived by her husband, a Nepalese man named Sanjeev Rana, and their now sixyear-old daughter.
Mora’s assassination was the second time that a journalist was murdered in Costa Rica, following the 2001 slaying of radio journalist Parmenio Medina (TT, July 13, 2001). Mora’s case, however, is the first to reach a verdict.
Meanwhile, a Catholic priest and his business partner are currently being tried as the planners behind Medina’s murder, in a case that has been fraught with problems and delays (TT, June 2).
Two days after Mora’s killing, police arrested her former boss, businessman Eugenio Millot, as he prepared to board a flight to his native Uruguay at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, northwest of San José. Mora worked for Millot as the editor of the business magazine Estrategia & Negocios, which Millot owned as part of his Red Castle Group publishing company.
Mora left the magazine – apparently on bad terms – four months before her murder to help launch Summa, a competing business magazine that began publication following her death.
Authorities investigating the case have maintained that her killing was most likely the product of a dispute not related to her reporting. Prosecutors alleged that Millot, furious with Mora for leaving his publication and taking other employees with her, contracted a group of Colombians to kill her.
In addition to Millot, the prosecution charged Colombians John Nievas (Millot’s alleged contact), Freddy Cortés (a former sniper with the Colombian military and the alleged shooter), Edward Serna (accused of hosting meetings at his home where the murder was discussed), Nelson López (allegedly in charge of finding the motorcycle), and Edgardo Martínez (who ran Red Castle’s operations in Colombia and was accused of bringing $10,000 into Costa Rica illegally to pay for the hit).
“The tragedy of Ivannia’s death would be magnified… if it went unpunished,” said Armando González, managing editor of the daily La Nación. “The case is not yet closed, but it’s evident that if at this mature stage of the process charges have not been established, it points to the enormous possibility that we may have an unpunished case.”
In a statement released Tuesday, IPLEX expressed its “deep concern” about the case and urged authorities to not give up their efforts to punish the authors of Mora’s assassination.
“IPLEX abstains, for now, from emitting any judgment of the conclusions and reasoning of the court, as the text of the sentence is still unknown,” the press organization said. “Impunity in any murder is grave.
But in the case of journalists it has unfortunate consequences for the democratic system, because, beyond violating the rights of the victim, it produces an inhibiting effect on exercising freedom of expression in all its manifestations.”
The Journalists’ Association, in a statement released Wednesday, called on authorities to “double their efforts” to clear up the motives behind Mora’s murder and ensure that the culprits are judged, convicted and serve their time.
Dall’Anese v. The Judges
Following six months of trial, the three presiding judges ruled Monday to drop the charges against Millot and five alleged accomplices, saying “essential” evidence for the case – testimony from two witnesses taken before the trial began – was improperly obtained and inadmissible in court. The judges railed against the prosecutors and the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) in court, saying there were “deficiencies” and “incoherencies” in their investigations and case.
According to the judges, the key testimony of one witness was unacceptable because it was taken without the presence of all the defense lawyers. The testimony of a second witness, taken in Bogotá, Colombia, and transmitted to Costa Rica via videoconference, was struck down because the Costa Rican judge who was present in Colombia was not authorized by the court to take the testimony.
In the aftermath of the ruling, all eyes fell quickly on Francisco Dall’Anese, Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor, who vehemently denied his prosecutors committed any errors and vowed to appeal the verdict before the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala III).
The Chief Prosecutor told Channel 7 TV News anchorwoman Pilar Cisneros, during a live, heated interview on the lunch-hour news Tuesday, “I would not do anything differently…I don’t believe any errors were committed.”
At a press conference later that afternoon at the Prosecutor’s Office, he insisted the evidence had been approved since the beginning of the trial, and the judges’ ruling is mistaken.
In Costa Rica’s legal system, one set of judges evaluates the evidence before the trial begins, and a second set of judges presides over the trial, evaluates the evidence and makes the final ruling.
Dall’Anese pointed out the first judges accepted the evidence as presented by the prosecutors, but the trial judges rejected it following six months of proceedings.
According to Judicial Branch spokeswoman Sandra Castro, the criteria used by the judges are “highly subjective.”
The use of videoconferencing to take the testimony in Bogotá was a first for the Costa Rican judicial system, and for that reason the prosecutors took a judge with them, Dall’Anese explained. However, he continued, the testimony was actually received by judges in a courtroom in Guadalupe, in northern San José, in the presence of the defense attorneys. The Chief Prosecutor pointed out the method of taking declarations from witnesses via videoconferencing technology has been used and approved of in various trials since – trials that ended in convictions.
Dall’Anese said that once the judges release the full text of their decision –expected in the next 30 days – the prosecutors will study it before appealing to the Sala III. There, judges could take between six months to one year to rule on whether the trial judges were correct in dropping the charges against Millot and the codefendants.
Meanwhile, Millot and the codefendants were released unconditionally from preventive prison detention Monday following the court decision. Millot was seen celebrating and kissing his lawyer – also his wife, according to the daily La Nación – when the ruling was read. He did not return The Tico Times’ call for comment by press time.
The Chief Prosecutor said his office has no other suspects or leads in the case.
Tico Times reporter María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this story.