Sodalicio defamation case prompts legal storm

15 April 2019

On 9 April, in a court in Piura, Judge Judith Cueva Calle found journalist Pedro Salinas guilty of defamation charges for the publication of an article he wrote about the Archbishop of Piura, José Antonio Eguren. The article concerned Eguren’s role as a longstanding member of the Catholic association Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (known in Peru as Sodalicio). Sodalicio has been linked to serious allegations of sexual abuse and ill-treatment of minors. Eguren has accused Salinas of defamation.

The article in question (published at the time of Pope Francis’ visit to Peru last year) referred to Eguren as the “Peruvian Juan Barros”, an allusion to the Chilean bishop accused of covering up sexual abuses by priests in Chile. Salinas also cited other journalistic sources that referred to Sodalicio’s links to land trafficking.

The judge, who will officially read the verdict on 22 April, has sentenced Salinas to a one-year suspended prison sentence and ordered a fine of 80,000 soles in reparations, roughly equivalent to £18,500. The Instituto de Defensa Legal has announced that it will appeal the judge’s decision, warning of the threat this decision poses to freedom of expression.

According to IDL lawyer Carlos Rivera, “the decision contradicts jurisprudence by the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that protects freedom of expression. Jurisprudence establishes that you can even express something that can be deemed offensive if the person you allude to is a public person or the material is of public interest. In no moment has the journalist made any comments about the private behaviour or the family of Archbishop Eguren, but he has talked of his past in an institution that has been seriously questioned”.

In February, Amnesty International released a public statement expressing concern at the criminal proceedings against Salinas and his co-author Paola Ugaz. AI stated that “the use of criminal defamation laws to prevent legitimate criticism violates the right to freedom of expression…” arguing that such allegations should be dealt with in civil proceedings.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that: “The State’s obligation to protect the rights of others is served by providing statutory protection against intentional infringement of honour and reputation through civil actions and by implementing laws that guarantee the right of reply. In this sense, the State guarantees protection of individuals’ privacy without abusing its coercive powers to repress individual freedom to form opinions and express them”.

Amnesty has called on the Peruvian authorities to ensure that the judicial system is not used to harass or discredit critical voices by imposing punishment for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

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