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Dutch journalist Ornstein freed on defamation charges in Panama

Panama's president has signed an executive decree to release a Dutch journalist jailed on criminal defamation charges. Okke Ornstein was arrested for slander and libel on November 15 on his return to Panama.

President Juan Carlos Varela signed the decree on Friday, also freeing 310 other detainees, as well as granting conditional releases to 65 others, Ornstein's lawyer, Manuel Succari, told the French news agency AFP.

Varela told reporters that "freedom of expression is fundamental for democracy."

Varela - whose government has been widely criticized for unchecked corruption and various allegedly undemocratic practises - said Ornstein had also been granted a reduction in a penalty disqualifying him from practicing journalism in Panama.

Dutch ambassador to Panama Dirk Janssen was the first to react to the release:

Bananama Republic

Ornstein had been serving a 20-month sentence for defamation cases lodged in 2011 and 2012 over articles he had written on his blog 'Bananama Republic' about corruption and fraud in Latin America.

Ornstein - who also works for Dutch public broadcasters and Al Jazeera - had originally been sentenced after Canadian businessman Monte Friesner filed a complaint over a report by Ornstein alleging Friesner was engaged in dubious business practices in Panama, according to news reports and court documents reviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Succari said an appeal was rejected in 2013. In 2015, the courts reissued an arrest warrant to keep the case active, although no attempt had been made to arrest Ornstein.

Ornstein's lawyer in the Netherlands, Channa Samkalden, told the CPJ that Ornstein was convicted in the second criminal defamation case in 2013 and sentenced to 18 months in prison over the articles.

Ornstein appealed the conviction in 2014 and in 2015 a judge replaced the jail term with a fine, but in November a court overturned the appeal ruling and reinstated the prison term after Ornstein allegedly failed to pay the fine of $3,500 (3,350 euros), Succari said.

The journalist had not been formally notified of the change by the courts and was being held only on the 2012 conviction, his lawyer added.

Staying put

Immigration authorities will now decide whether Ornstein can remain in the country.

The journalist - who has lived for 15 years in Panama, where he has a daughter - will remain in the country, said Succari.

The Bananama website is currently unavailable. An August 15 post on his Facebook page said it had been closed pending legal proceedings in the Netherlands. 

jbh/kl (AFP, EFE)

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