San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Critics Blast Slander Trial as Sandinista Kangaroo Court

MANAGUA – The April 17 slander trial against La Prensa opened under protest by defense lawyer Helga Asher, who filed several motions to suspend the proceedings under the argument that judge Celso Urbina was unfit to preside over the case due to his political affiliations and the politically charged nature of the trial. The judge, however, overruled the motions and proceeded – a decision that Asher claims was in violation of the right to a fair trial.

That wouldn’t be Asher’s only objection on the evening. As the four-hour trial continued, Asher asked the court to record a dozen or so protests over how the judge ran the proceedings, which had law professors and their students in attendance shaking their heads and gasping in disbelief during several instances when they thought the judge was showing strong partisan favor toward the Sandinista plaintiffs.

The five plaintiffs, members of a Sandinista Council of Citizen Power, or CPC, claimed their honor was offended by a Dec. 20 headline in La Prensa that accused the CPC of being “street gangs” that have a “license to give beatings.” The actual article didn’t even mention the CPCs and was not part of the slander trial – just the six-word headline and 13-word sub-headline.

The women, in their criminal complaint, said that they felt discriminated against because people on the street had started calling them “gansters” after the article ran.

Two of the plaintiffs, represented by a Sandinista Party lawyer, testified – in verbatim- like similarity – that they felt offended as “members of a CPC.” The other three women didn’t take the stand or offer any proof of being victims.

Defense council Asher pointed out that none of the alleged victims were mentioned directly or even alluded to specifically in the headlines, which, in her judgment, should have been grounds to throw out the slander charges, which she says have to be specific, malicious and individualized to stick under the law. The only other “witness” provided was another CPC member, who sat on the stand mutely and didn’t answer the defense’s questioning.

The only material evidence presented was a copy of the La Prensa headline in question, and a mission statement about what the CPCs are. La Prensa, meanwhile, presented as material evidence a TV spot that has been running against newspaper president Jaime Chamorro, calling him a “thief” and accusing him of being behind “the robbery of the century.” That, Asher said, is a real example of slander.

After a confusing closing argument by the prosecuting lawyer, who talked about how it’s every citizen’s right to participate in government – an issue that wasn’t on trial – the judge deliberated for four hours, apparently to study the headline very carefully while everyone else waited in the courtroom. At 10 p.m., the judge returned with his guilty verdict – a decision the defense alleges was cooked long before the trial started.

The penalty, a fine of up to around $4,000, was to be announced this week at press time. La Prensa has said it will appeal.


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