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Nelson Aguilera, Free at Last

Wednesday 23 June 2021 - 4:15pm

Nelson Aguilera Foto Cortesia

Nelson Aguilera is a prolific writer, teacher and member of PEN Paraguay. In 2013, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for alleged plagiarism. In February 2021 the suit has lapsed and today Nelson is free. PEN International and PEN Centres around the world, writers, lawyers and experts on freedom of expression issues, have fought in his defence. “All these years, our organisation stood firm in calling on the Paraguayan authorities to overturn his unjust conviction. Today, we celebrate that Nelson can write and create in freedom again," said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.

In the following article, Lucina Kathmann, author and Vice President of PEN International, shares Aguilera's story over the last decade, following a telephone conversation with the Paraguayan author.


By Lucina Kathmann*

Nelson Aguilera lived more than ten long years in limbo. In 2010, a lawsuit was filed against him for alleged plagiarism. It all began when he wrote and published Karumbita: La patriota (Alfaguara, 2010), which tells the story of the independence of Paraguay through the adventures of a turtle who travels through the centuries to witness important events in the history of the country.

The plaintiff was the Paraguayan writer María Eugenia Garay Zucolillo, whom Nelson had met in literary readings. She brought the suit on 2 July 2010, alleging that Aguilera had used the device of time travel, as she did in her novel El túnel del tiempo (Criterio Editions, 2005) and asked for the maximum penalty for the crime of plagiarism: a sentence of five years in prison.

Nelson tried to get his colleagues to intervene. Several people, including some of her own relatives, talked to Garay. It did no good. She wanted Nelson jailed.

The court case came. According to Aguilera, 40 witnesses were prevented from testifying in his defence as the judge ruled that the testimonies had been presented too late. These included a recognised legal expert in plagiarism employed by the court to investigate the case, who ruled that Nelson did not have a case to answer.

(Nelson Aguilera’s case has been part of PEN International Case List since 2014. You can check all the follow-up until 2020 here)

Despite a number of independent experts and writers found that the similarities in both works cannot be described as plagiarism, including noting differences in their style, structure and argument, and that the concept of time travel has been used widely throughout literature, Nelson was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in jail on 4 November 2013.

(Read the Writers in Prison Day 2014, a Campaign by PEN Centres and PEN International on Nelson’ case).

Nelson appealed the sentence on 25 November 2013, and called on his networks and international groups such as PEN for support. A host of organizations joined the international outcry. Aguilera’s case brought up several points of view, including a discussion of whether a custodial sentence for plagiarism, which is rare anywhere, is ever appropriate in Paraguay. They kept the pressure up in Nelson’s defence. They made his case a real hot potato.

(Read the letter by Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela to Nelson Aguilera)

The plaintiff too called on her support, which included, among others, her brother, a Minister of the Supreme Court of Paraguay. Nelson’s conviction and sentence were confirmed in June 2014, and his appeal was taken to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Justice sent the case back to the Appeal Court, which let the case lapse when its temporal deadline had passed, an easy solution used in many countries to get rid of baseless lawsuits.

On 3 February 2021, Nelson himself published the news that this case had expired. He is a free man. Now (May, 2021) he even has his passport back and his rights, which were suspended during the case, have been restored. Nelson and Karumbita, whose name is the Guaraní word for a turtle, are moving on.

(PEN Paraguay Centre has included Aguilera as part of his activities for a greater incidence in his case)

You can hear Nelson talking about his recent book Karumbita in Quarantine (Karumbita en cuarentena) and the pandemic in a video (in Spanish) available on the following Facebook page.

It is obvious from Nelson’s story that work is needed to make substantive changes in Paraguayan law about plagiarism and other matters related to freedom of expression and artistic freedom, but now that he is free, Nelson is no longer interested in that. He believes in the children in Paraguay, the new generation which he hopes will do things in a better way.

Read the bio of Nelson Aguilera.

*Lucina Kathmann is Vice President of PEN International.