BELIZE CITY, Thurs. July 23, 2015–The courtroom of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, the largest courtroom in the country, was filled to capacity as supporters of Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Gaspar “Gapi” Vega, the UDP incumbent for the Orange Walk North constituency, and his political opponent, PUP standard bearer Ramon “Monchi” Cervantes, Jr., waited for the libel case that Vega had brought against Cervantes, to begin, around 9:00 this morning.
The hearing opened with Vega’s attorney, Rodwell Williams, S.C., from the law firm of Barrow and Williams (Prime Minister Barrow’s law firm) outlining the grounds of the claim Vega had filed against Cervantes.
Vega’s lawsuit originated out of allegations made in an audio recording that was broadcast from a memorial service in November 2014 that the Cervantes family had for Ramon Cervantes, Sr. who was murdered in July 2014.
In a telephone conversation between Cervantes’ widow, Vilma Cervantes, and a man claiming to be Manuel Castillo — which was aired on Love FM and on Fiesta FM, an Orange Walk-based radio station — Castillo implicated Vega in the plot to murder the senior Cervantes.
Castillo, for the record, is still at large, wanted by police for the murder.
Immediately after the conversation was aired, Vega issued a press release threatening legal action against any media house if they repeated the allegations made by Castillo in his telephone conversation with Mrs. Cervantes.
Vega also demanded a public apology from Cervantes, but Cervantes refused to apologize, so Vega instructed his attorney to proceed with the lawsuit against him and Fiesta FM, which is named as the second defendant in Vega’s claim.
Reportedly, Love FM had apologized and paid compensation, hence no claim was filed against that media house.
The highlight of today’s hearing occurred when the claimant Vega took the witness stand and was subjected to cross-examination from Cervantes’ attorney, former Prime Minister Said W. Musa, S.C., from the law firm of Musa and Balderamos, and Fiesta FM’s attorney, Eamon Courtenay, S.C., from Courtenay Coye LLP.
Before Vega took the witness stand, Courtenay told the court that he was inviting “my learned friend” to tell the court whether the claim was for libel, or slander.
In reply, Williams told the court that it is a claim for both libel and slander. “For the purpose of libel and slander, the broadcast of the words are in permanent form,” Williams said.
CJ Benjamin told the court that the lawsuit was making a claim for damages for slander against the 1st defendant (Cervantes) and damages for libel against the 2nd defendant (Fiesta FM).
In his testimony, Vega told the court that he received a copy of the recording from Love FM’s Ava Diaz and that he listened to the recording.
Williams asked Vega what he felt after listening to the recording.
Courtenay, however, objected to this line of questioning, “Until the recording is admitted into evidence.”
Vega told the court, “I remember the disk saying that a government minister was involved in the murder of Ramon Cervantes, Sr. It said that Vega paid to have Ramon Cervantes, Sr., murdered. It [the murder] was done in error, because it was Ramon Cervantes, Jr. that was supposed to be murdered.”
“It also said that I am corrupt and that I am corrupting members of the Police Department. It said that I am involved with the mafia in Mexico. It also said that I had conspired to have Ramon Cervantes, Sr., killed,” Vega said from the witness stand.
Vega went on to testify: “After I got the tape, I went to the law firm of Barrow and Williams to have the tape translated into English, and to have Ramon Cervantes, Jr., Fiesta FM and Love FM served with a letter, asking them to do a public apology and to contact the office for them to negotiate compensation for the great damage they had done to my character, and for the pain, suffering and risk that they placed on me and my immediate family.”
Vega added, “Not a single word on the tape was true.”
Williams then asked his witness if he had any explanation for why this was done to him.
Vega said that the only explanation he has is that Ramon, Jr., is his political opponent in Orange Walk North, and that he paid for the announcement to get sympathy or political mileage.
Vega told the court that he could not remember the name of the young woman who translated the tape, only that he had met with her.
At this point, Courtenay again “vigorously objected” to the tendering of the CD from Vega. He told the court, “The notice is manifestly in breach of Civil Procedure Rule (CPR) 31; witness statements were ordered to be filed no later than March 27, 2015. The notice from my learned friend [to submit an additional witness statement] was received June 25.”
This was almost three months after the witness statements were required to be filed, under the CPR rules, Courtenay said.
“The translation is clearly hearsay. No witness statement was prepared by that person. In fact, the witness [Vega] has told you that he does not even remember the name of the person who prepared the translation,” Courtenay said.
Musa told the court, “The latest date for witness statement was March and this notice was made in June.”
Under cross-examination from Musa, Vega admitted that the statement he made in his witness statement that Cervantes was his political opponent was not an accurate statement, but he did not say why.
Vega also said under cross-examination that a person contacted him and told him to listen to the broadcast from Cervantes’ memorial. In his witness statement, however, he had stated that a number of persons started calling him and he started to listen to the broadcast.
Vega told the court more than once, that what stuck in his mind was that a minister of government was involved in the murder of Ramon Cervantes, Sr.
Musa pointed out to him that in his witness statement, he had said that he heard the voice of Manuel Castillo, which was different from him saying “alleged voice” of Castillo on the witness stand.
Vega denied in court that he knows Manuel Castillo. In an amplified voice, he declared: “No, sir, I never met him.”
Musa then asked him if the broadcast affected him politically. Vega replied that he didn’t know, because he never had an election since then.
Musa asked him what kind of character he has, and Vega replied, “Everyone in Orange Walk knows me. I am a God-fearing person.”
Musa asked him if his character had been called into question by the Prime Minister, when he [the Prime Minister] had described his [Vega’s] Ministry of Natural Resources as a hot bed of corruption.”
Vega replied, “I don’t know if that has anything with me being accused of murder.”
Courtenay crossed-examined Vega about how he got the CD with the contents of the broadcast.
Vega told him that he received it from Love FM’s Ava Diaz.
“Are you telling His Lordship that Ava Diaz went to Belmopan and delivered the CD to you?” Courtenay asked him.
“No,” Vega said, “My driver gave it to me.”
“Tell Your Lordship how long is the CD,” Courtenay said to Vega.
Vega replied that he did not know the length of the recording on the CD.
Courtenay told him, “I am putting it to you that Fiesta FM attempted to broadcast the event, but discontinued after about five minutes, because the quality was poor.”
Vega replied, “I don’t know what to say to that.”
Courtenay put it to him that on more than one occasion, his (Vega’s) character has been called into question, but Vega denied that his character has been called into question.
Courtenay asked Vega if as a minister of government, his portfolio was ever changed.
“Yes, it was changed,” Vega replied.
When Courtenay suggested to him that as a politician, his character has been called into question on more than one occasion, Vega replied, “That is politics.”
“You have not put to the court any evidence of substantial damage to your reputation,” Courtenay told Vega, who replied: “I don’t know how to do that.”
The case continues tomorrow, Friday, at 10: 00 a.m.