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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A Honduran journalist known as a strong critic of President Juan Orlando Hernandez died Saturday at a hospital of COVID-19 that he apparently contracted while in prison on a defamation sentence.

The National Cardio-pulmonary Institute confirmed the death of Radio Globo director David Romero due to respiratory failure associated with the novel coronavirus. He had been imprisoned since March 2019, when Honduran police broke down the door of a radio station and arrested him.

Defamation has since been decriminalized under a new law in Honduras that took effect in June, and Romero could have been eligible for release.

Former President Manuel Zelaya wrote in his Twitter account that "the death of David Romero is a murder by the regime of JOH," referring to the current president's initials. "The order was given that he serve an unfair sentence and to not take him out of prison until he had caught COVID-19."

The Honduras Journalists Association said via Twitter that it regretted Romero's death. It said the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had been pushing for his release.

In 2015, Romero exposed a fraud in the government social security system in which state money was channeled to the election campaign of Hernandez.

Romero's imprisonment stemmed from his reporting on Sonia Inez Galvez Ferrari, the wife of former Attorney General Rigoberto Cuellar. He was convicted in 2016 of defaming Galvez, who as a prosecutor in 2005 had won a conviction against Romero for raping his own daughter. Romero was later released.

Romero had repeatedly denounced Hernández and his family, accusing them of involvement in corruption and drug trafficking.

"I know they can kill me and, if that happens, the person responsible is the president," Romero said as he was forced into a police vehicle when he was arrested in 2019.

U.S. federal prosecutors won a drug trafficking conviction against Hernández's brother Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández last year in New York. U.S. prosecutors have alleged that the president fueled his political ascent in part with money from drug traffickers. He has not been charged and has repeatedly denied those allegations.

The president himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June and released from the hospital earlier this month.