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As you would recall from the Nature Biotechnology article posted a couple of months ago, a Peruvian geneticist Dr. Ernesto Bustamante was facing criminal charges for character defamation. His crime? He gave press interviews disagreeing with the results of another Peruvian scientist who was claiming the local maize varieties were contaminated with transgenes and then wrote a newspaper article (see below) on the topic.
Dr. Bustamante has now been found guilty of character defamation by Peruvian court, and thus faces prison time. It will be one year before they formally sentence him. In the mean time, he: 1) may not leave Lima (capital city of Perú) without a judge's permission; 2) must present himself the last day of every month to the court, and sign a register; 3) pay the defendant approx. $1800 in damage.
This is an absolute outrage and so bizarre! The verdict completely undermines the open and free dialog inherent in the scientific process, and in the freedom of speech. Dr. Alexander Grobman, Emeritus Professor and President of the Asociacion Peruana para el Desarollo de la Biotecnologia at Peru says "We back unanimously Dr. Ernesto Bustamante and his gallant position in not accepting to retract himself from the expression of truth to the public and the defense of freedom of expression, regardless of personal consequences. The trial of Dr. Bustamante shall be considered a milestone in the fight of science for freedom of expression. We expect that a higher court will reverse the original conditioned "not guilty" suspended verdict, as long as he complies with juridical details, which he has not accepted and has appealed. "
As a global scientific community, we must collectively call on the Government of Peru to intervene and exonerate Dr. Bustamante. Please sign the letter in support of him at
C. S. Prakash
Bustamante Bio - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernesto_Bustamante
Peruvian GM Advocate Faces Criminal Charges
- Lucas Laursen, Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 12(2), Page 110, February 2010 http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v28/n2/full/nbt0210-110a.html
A molecular biologist could face a prison sentence for criticizing a report on transgenic gene spread. Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, vice president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, a professional organization, stands accused of defamation, a criminal offense, which in Peru can carry a prison term or fine.
What triggered the suit was his public criticism of a report prepared by Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati, a biologist at the La Molina National Agricultural University in Lima, identifying a P34S promoter and NK603 and BT11 transgenes in 14 of 42 maize samples from the Barranca region. Gutiérrez sent summaries of her findings to both the National Agricultural Research Institute and El Comercio newspaper in 2007 calling for a moratorium on transgenic crops until biosafety regulations are in place to prevent the spread to human food. Bustamante, a frequent contributor to radio and print, with no financial links to crop companies, described the alleged detection of three simultaneous transgenic events from two firms as "absurdly improbable" in his newspaper column and called for her claims to be peer reviewed.
"The main point of my criticism," Bustamante says, "was her going to the press instead of to her peers." After Bustamante refused to retract his statements, Gutiérrez filed a suit for defamation. She later presented her findings to the Peruvian Genetic Society of which she is president, but would not comment on the case, except to say that "you must use respect" in scientific discussion and that her critics have "polarized" the debate. Although Peruvian farmers already import transgenic products for animal feed, several interest groups oppose their widespread introduction, which they label a foreign intrusion and threat to Peruvian biodiversity.
An ongoing investigation is seeking to replicate Gutiérrez's findings, but the government lacks the regulations to enforce its biosafety laws even if it does find transgenic crop outcrossing. The criminal case, however, threatens to stifle all scientific discussion.
"Regardless of whether he gets sentenced or not I don't think anyone is going to criticize anything," says plant scientist Wayne Parrott, from the University of Georgia, a regular visitor to Peru. Bustamante's colleague and supporter Luis Destefano Beltrán of the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University agrees that "many people have tried to avoid taking sides."
Peru retains criminal defamation laws, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in 1995 are incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. Bustamante, who expects a ruling early this year, says, "The point is not whether I'm right or wrong. It's the fact that for criticizing somebody on scientific grounds I'm being tried in criminal court."
Public Statement of the College of Biologists of Peru, National Council, February 14, 2010
The National Council of the College of Biologists of Peru, which consists of deans twenty regional and national full board unanimously approved in a regular session of February 6, 2010 to make a public statement regarding the criminal complaint for defamation aggravated that has been Dr. Ernesto Bustamante, who is our Past National Dean (2007-2009) and current national vice dean (2009-2011).
We believe it is wrong that the judiciary has accepted a claim by non-collegiate biologist Antonietta Ornella Gutierrez Rosati, a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, as a result of being offended in his honor to have received scientific criticisms, which were broadcast publicly by Dr. Burke on National Radio and the newspaper El Comercio, a report presented by Dr. Gutierrez at INIA and CONAM authorities.
This troublesome fact has prompted extensive international reaction, as evidenced by the appearance of an article in the prestigious international scientific journal Nature Biotechnology Branding the judicial process as leading to stifle scientific debate and the right to free speech of scientists and also criticized the Peruvian judicial system to criminalize a matter of an academic and professional.
The Article 133 of the Criminal Code specifically provides that Peruvian literary criticism, artistic and scientific works are exempted from being classified as libel. In science we are obliged to create an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas and we must defend this freedom.
Invoke the judicial branch not to intervene in matters which should be resolved only between scientists, and that the trial has been subjected to one of our members and managers in the Sixth Criminal Court of Lima is brought to a conclusion and acting on acquittal for freedom of expression of scientists.
Dr. Hermes Escalante Añorga , Decano Nacional Dr. Hermes Escalante Añorga, National Dean
Dr. Luis Carrasco Mendo, Dr. Luis Carrasco Mendo, Secretario Nacional National Secretary
Lima, 12 de febrero de 2010 Lima, February 12, 2010
(The article in question; translated from Spanish by Dr. Wayne Parrott)
A controversial investigation
Are transgenics already being grown in our country?
- Ernesto Bustamante, Dean, College of Biology
In November, a journalist exposed in El Comercio, that a biologist from the National Agricultural University of La Molina had realized laboratory tests which ‘proved’ the existence of illegal transgenic maize in the valley of Barranca. This journal report did not show results nor referenced any article published in a scientific journal (which is an ethical requirement for any scientist who will divulge their results via the media). Rather, as any the only support provided was that an ecologist from the same university stated, ‘if she said so, then it is true, especially if she has done the analysis.” That is, the principle of authority was used, instead of the Aristotelian scientific karma– I am a friend of Plato, but I am a better friend of Truth.
Weeks after the article was published in the paper, the researcher made her results public via a technical-political report. This lacked the strict standards of all scientific publications (materials and methods, results and discussion, bibliography, coauthors, source of funds, declaration of conflicts of interest) and was received by the Conam [National Enviromental council] and INIA [National Institute for Agricultural Research] for study, and it passed on to scientists who studied it independently. A month ago, INIA issued its findings on the study, and Conam had it reviewed by three experts. These institutions have not published their conclusions. Some weeks ago, I spoke with a journalist responsible for the evaluation of the materials used for the original newspaper article, and a colleague of mine let me know that our evaluation had made it to the Rector’s office of the National Agricultural University of La Molina.
The author had two absurdly improbable conclusions a) the simultaneous presence of three transgenic events from two different companies (a gene for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate; a gene for resistance to another herbicide glufosinate, and a Bt gene for resistance to a lepidopteran insect. b) having found transgenics in 30% of the crops. This is even more serious, given that one of the two companies has not commercialized its seeds. These false and incoherent conclusions can be explained by the fact that the report has grave errors in procedure and quality control (absence of positive standards, wrong interpretation of the amplicons, etc.).
I do not know if transgenic maize is being grown in Peru; maybe yes, maybe no. It is also possible that Martians are alive and well in Barranca; maybe yes, maybe no. What is certain is that no one has proven that there are transgenic crops in Barranca or in any part of Peru (except for experimentals). Not yet.
Given this sequence of personal and institutional ineptitude, a false truth has been generated and disseminated internationally. This should have been corrected by the investigator, the reporter, the ecologist, the politicized Conam, INIA, or the University. Nevertheless, I see with unease that each time a false truth is promulgated as a done deed, it gets used as a tool by those ideological and pseudoenvironmental groups that use their anticorporate stances to torpedo the important role that modern biotech should play as a developmental tool for Peru.
This is a clear example of why the proposed ministry to which we pretend to entrust the cares of the environment must be free of political influence, and must depend on scientists of a free mind that can evaluate, from a strict technical view point, the environmental impact of the projects underway.
Declaration of the scientific community in support of Dr. Ernesto Bustamante
We the undersigned find the charges brought against our colleague, Dr. Ernesto Bustamante, and the subsequent guilty verdict, to be a violation of universal human rights and a travesty against long-standing and universal principles of behavior, as articulated by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which reads:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
More specifically, the verdict destroys the integrity of science. Ultimately, the strength of science lies in peer review. It is an established and universal procedure that scientists publish their work precisely so the rest of the scientific community can evaluate it. No scientist ever publishes under any illusion that their work will be accepted without question. A few of the published research papers stand the test of time. Others fall by the wayside, as scrutiny by the scientific community at large is able to find flaws or alternative interpretations for their results. Only when the science community at large validates a piece of scientific work after repeated questioning and challenges, thus separating facts from artifacts, can science move forward. Therefore, engaging in scientific critique has become both a right and a duty for scientists.
We are saddened that another Peruvian scientist took personal offense when her results were questioned. Legitimate scientists would have reviewed their data to ensure its integrity. Instead, she chose to seek redress through the court system. But by doing so, she violated the tenets that form the very foundation of science. We wish to stress that no court ruling is ever able to alter scientific fact or the laws of nature.
Moreover, we are surprised that Dr. Bustamante could be found culpable of defamation when Article 133 of the Penal Code of Peru states explicitly: “One does not commit injury or defamation when one deals with: 2. Literary, artistic or scientific critiques.” Dr. Bustamante engaged in a scientific critique of the scientific merits of the work of another scientist.
As long as scientists who follow the standard scientific process can find themselves subject to prosecution, legitimate science cannot be practiced in Peru. We therefore call upon Peru to restore the ability of scientists to exercise their discipline and pursue truth in accordance with the values of the free world, and call upon the Peruvian authorities to reverse the ill-considered and unfounded verdict.
In solidarity with Dr. Bustamante, we sign below: