A lawyer for a British journalist found guilty of libelling an alleged drugs baron said the court ruling represented a precedent-setting setback for press freedom in Peru.
Jorge Santistevan told Radioprogramas Radio that Judge Alfredo Catacora’s ruling against Sally Bowen, a former BBC and Financial Times correspondent, set a dangerous new standard for journalists investigating public figures accused of criminal activity.
“If there is no court conviction, you can’t quote anyone saying a crime was committed,” said Santistevan, one of Peru’s most respected lawyers, who served as the country’s first National Ombudsman from 1996-2000.
On Wednesday Catacora ordered Bowen to pay Fernando Zevallos about €2,500 for citing a jailed former US Drug Enforcement Administration informant, Oscar Benites, who identified Zevallos as a major cocaine trafficker.
The passage appeared in a 2003 book she co-authored called ”The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos,” about Peru’s now-imprisoned former intelligence chief.
Benites alleged that Montesinos did business with Zevallos. The single sentence was the only reference to Zevallos in the 493-page book.
Some members of Peru’s legislature lined up yesterday in support of Bowen.
Congresswoman Fabiola Morales, chair of the legislature’s Ethics Commission, told Canal N television that the judge’s ruling showed “ignorance” of Peruvian law and free speech guarantees.
“She repeated what a reliable source, who had made the same statements publicly, told her. As a consequence, she is not injuring, harming, or defaming,” said Congress President Antero Flores Araoz.
“I believe there has perhaps been a juridical excess here that can be overcome.”
Catacora ruled there was insufficient proof of intentional malice to justify a prison sentence on Bowen. But he ruled she had improperly evaluated Zevallos’ character, given that he has never been convicted of a crime.
He placed her on probation for one year, hanging a one- to three-year reserve prison sentence over her head if she ”libelled” Zevallos again.
Zevallos, who denies any wrongdoing, has faced charges of money laundering, witness tampering, contract murder and cocaine trafficking in Peru and Chile.
He is currently on trial in Peru for his alleged part in a thwarted shipment of 3.3 tons of cocaine. Benites was presented in February as a prosecution witness.
Zevallos said today the reason the judge ruled against Bowen was because she could not prove her interviews with Benites took place. Prison officials sent a letter to the court explaining that pertinent pages from the visitor’s registry had mysteriously been cut out and spirited away.
DEA officials have described Zevallos as the “Al Capone” of Peru – an allusion to allegations he manipulates Peru’s courts, media, and police and systematically silences witnesses through intimidation, bribes and threats.
US President George W. Bush’s administration last year added Zevallos to Washington’s international “drug kingpin” list.