European court raps Spain for sentencing journalist

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The European rights court Tuesday ruled that Spain had breached a journalist's right to free expression by sentencing him for an article linking Morocco's king to a drug smuggling case.

The court said that while Jose Luis Gutierrez Suarez had erred in implicating Morocco's deceased ruler Hassan II to a 1995 drugs haul, the "Spanish public had the right to be informed about drug trafficking in which the Moroccan royal family appeared to be involved.

It said his conviction amounted to an "interference with the applicant's freedom of expression..."

Suarez, who was publication director of the Diario 16 daily, was sentenced over an article entitled 'Five tons of hashish discovered in a consignment belonging to Hassan II's company.'

"The article was about the seizure in Algesiras of 4,638 kilograms of hashish found in the false bottom of a lorry transporting fruit for Domaines Royaux, a company belonging to the Alaouite royal family," the court said.

The Moroccan king then sued saying the article tarnished his image and that of the royal family.

A Spanish court ruled in 1996 that the drug traffickers had no connection with the Domaines Royaux company.

The author of the article, the applicant and the publisher were sentenced to a fine and ordered to publish the judgment in the newspaper.

The Strasbourg-based European rights watchdog Tuesday said that while the heading of the article was sensational and designed to attract the attention of readers, "the information in the body of article was true."

Recalling that Spain's Supreme Court had found that "headlines and not the information itself had been defamatory," the European Court of Human Rights said the "restriction on the applicant's freedom of expression had not been proportionate to the potential seriousness of the damage to the reputation in question."

© 2010 AFP

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