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Jul 29, 1998

Esquivel wins record libel judgement against Marconi, P.U.P.

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It was their first major stumble in a campaign that was otherwise going strong, and today in the court of Justice George Meerabux the People’s United Party had to pay the price – both in cash and loss of face. In the biggest verdict ever rendered in a Belizean libel case San Ignacio Town Councilor Marconi Matus and P.U.P. Party Chairman Jorge Espat were jointly ordered to pay Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel the sum of sixty thousand dollars plus his lawyers fees. The judge ruled that the two defendants had maliciously defamed Esquivel’s reputation by falsely alleging in a February eleventh press conference that Esquivel had tried to bribe Matus to switch his allegiance to the U.D.P. Although the sixty thousand dollar award was a record, many in the courtroom, after hearing the judge’s harsh words, expected a far bigger penalty. Justice Meerabux was unstinting in his criticism of the defendants, declaring that without a doubt their remarks at the press conference cast aspersions on the Prime Minister’s character. He described the plaintiff’s testimony as clear and convincing while that of Marconi Matus and other defense witnesses was confusing, contradictory and devoid of a factual basis. After noting the wide circulation of the lie, the improper motive of the defendants, their failure to apologize and the general conduct of their case, the justice concluded that their actions were scurrilous and defamatory, amounting to nothing less than character assassination. In contrast to Matus and Espat, who were conspicuously absent from this morning’s proceedings, a characteristically unemotional Manuel Esquivel was on hand to savor the victory. Outside the courtroom he shared his feelings with the press.

Manuel Esquivel, Prime Minister

“I don’t know that ever in the history of this country has there ever been such an unbelievable creation of a falsehood, ever to have taken place in this country. This was an absolute figment that was put about as fact which was very easily exposed to be a lie and it was very, very clear. Just the convincing manner in which the fabrication was put forward I think would have caused anybody to be extremely aggrieved indeed.

I think it is another graphic example of their contempt of all of the institutions of this nation that they did not even come to court this morning. I cannot think of a greater insult and contempt to the Supreme Court of this land and I really find this kind of behavior threatening to the welfare of the Belizean nation as a whole.”

Q: “Do you think there is a message for politicians in general and the media in this verdict and if so what is it?”

Manuel Esquivel

“Well, I think the message is that we should all feel that we have an obligation to the Belizean public and to ourselves to tell the truth. And to the media, I think what it is saying, in this age of instant news when the media feels a lot of pressure to get to the public instantaneously that they really need to weight the options and to be sure that in rushing to print or rushing to get on the air that they are being fair to the nation and being fair to the people about whom they are reporting.”

In addition to the monetary damages, the defendants were also enjoined from publishing the libel in the future. Ironically, while Marconi Matus and the P.U.P. obviously could not back up their assertions of the Prime Minister’s involvement in any bribery attempt, it is believed that Matus was talking to lesser U.D.P. operatives in Cayo about the possibility of switching sides. Had he done so the 4-3 town board majority for the P.U.P. would have been reversed.

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