A Guatemalan tribunal sentenced newspaper founder and editor José Rubén Zamora to six years in prison Wednesday in a money laundering case, concluding a trial that press freedom groups decried as a political persecution aimed at silencing a critical voice.
The three-judge panel convicted and sentenced Zamora on a charge of money laundering that affected the national economy and stability of the financial system. The tribunal cleared Zamora of additional charges of blackmail and influence peddling.
Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei, and specifically his justice system, have been criticized internationally for backsliding on democratic principles and weaponizing the country’s prosecutors and courts to pursue perceived enemies.
Giammattei has denied there was any political motivation.
Zamora’s El Periodico newspaper was known as fiercely independent and published investigations about corruption in the administrations of Giammattei and his predecessors. Zamora’s work has been internationally recognized.
In his final comments to the court Wednesday before the verdict was announced, Zamora maintained his innocence and called for the court to release him, saying, “all of my rights were violated.” He said the government did not allow him the right to a defense. “They treated us like criminals, they destroyed evidence,” he said.
Several of his defense lawyers were arrested in the run-up to the trial.
The charges stemmed from Zamora, 66, asking a friend to deposit a $38,000 donation to keep the newspaper going rather than depositing it himself. Zamora has said he did so because the donor did not want to be identified supporting an outlet in the sights of Giammattei.
With Zamora in jail, El Periodico was forced to stop publishing a print edition Nov. 30 due to its financial difficulties. The outlet halted operations altogether May 15.
Last month, the Guatemalan Association of Journalists said that at least 20 journalists have been forced to flee the country in recent years.
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