[SANTIAGO, CHILE] The National Academy of Science of Peru has issued a declaration supporting a scientist convicted of defamation for criticising a colleague's GM research.
Scientists and science institutions worldwide are also lending their support to Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, a molecular biologist.
In a newspaper article published in November 2007, Antonietta Gutiérrez, a biologist at the National Agricultural University of La Molina, Peru, announced the discovery of illegal transgenic maize in the Peruvian valley of Barranca.
Two months later Bustamante — then dean of the Peruvian College of Biologists — criticised the study in a radio interview and newspaper column, saying it had not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal.
"The author concludes two unlikely absurdities … [these] false and incoherent conclusions could be explained by the fact that the report denotes gross errors in its procedure and quality control," he said.
Bustamante added that "given this sequence of personal and institutional ineptitude, a false truth has been generated".
After Bustamante refused to retract his statements, Gutiérrez filed a suit for defamation — a criminal offence in Peru that carries the risk of a jail sentence.
Last month a penal court found Bustamante guilty of defamation of character. But, in an unusual decision, his sentence has been suspended for a period of up to a year, provided he does not leave Lima without the court's permission, signs a court register once a month and pays the defendant around US$1,800 in damages.
"I have appealed since I never offended the honour of a person, but only expressed my scientific opinion about the research, not its author," Bustamante told SciDev.Net. "I argued that not only have I the right to express my scientific opinions [but] the statute of the College of Biologists says that its dean has the obligation to speak up about biological matters of national interest."
He said that the Peruvian Criminal Code states that scientific works are exempt from being classified as libel.
Gutiérrez did not reply to SciDev.Net's requests for an interview. But Fernando Alvarado, founder of the Peruvian Network of Ecological Agriculture, said: "There is a permanent policy of debunking any person who goes against the pro-transgenic interests".
The main cost of this judicial row is that "many scientists are now more reluctant to openly give their opinions," said Bustamante. "I do fear that, if I am not absolved, a guilty sentence could set a legal precedent and may silence the capacity of scientific criticism in our country."
The National Academy of Science of Peru called last week (20 May) for the Superior Court to "absolve" Bustamante and take actions "in order to never again expose in tribunals issues concerning scientific debate and opinion".
The US-based AgBioWorld Foundation, a not-for-profit, pro-agricultural biotechnology organisation, is gathering signatures of scientists around the world in a letter "to call on the Government of Peru to intervene and exonerate Dr. Bustamante". So far, around 600 scientists from more than 50 countries have signed the petition, said Bustamante.