The Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh, today heard a suit for libel brought by the Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, against the Reporter newspaper and its publisher, Harry Lawrence, for an editorial that was published in the Reporter dated October 2, 2005.
The portion of the editorial that Prime Minister Musa considers libelous, it appears, is where it is said that in March, 2005, Musa committed an illegal act by writing off $16 million in back taxes of the Belize Bank, owned by Lord Michael Ashcroft, because he needed U.S. $14 million to pay off a debt for which payment was due. Musa also believes that he was libeled in the part of the editorial in which the writer wrote that it was their guess that Musa would use the resources of the PUP, rich from private deals, to buy the next general election.
A third ground that was cited as libelous was a report in the editorial that claimed that Ashcroft contributed 8 million dollars to the Musa/PUP general election landslide victory in March of 2003.
Mr. Musa appeared today on the witness stand and was questioned to some length by the Leader of the UDP Opposition, Hon. Dean Barrow, who is representing the respondent.
Barrow at one point became so adamant in his line of questioning that Chief Justice Conteh advised him to be temperate.
Barrow asked Musa about a cheque dated January 4, 2003, from Barry Bowen.
Musa’s reply was that he was not aware of the cheque and that he had read about it in a newspaper article.
Barrow also asked Musa if it was true that his party spends thousands and thousands of dollars on elections, and Musa’s reply was, “So does your party.”
Barrow told Musa that in the article titled “Puppet and puppet master,” the writer, Minister Mark Espat, had made reference to a special relationship between him (Musa) and Barry Bowen. Musa said he did not consider it fair comment and at the time Espat had been expelled from the Cabinet.
Musa is being represented at the hearing by his son, Kareem Musa, of the law firm of Musa and Balderamos.
Harry Lawrence, under cross-examination by Kareem Musa, admitted that it was he who wrote the editorial, but said he did not have a political agenda.
Lawrence said the editorial was his opinion and he did not have to give facts. He also said he did his research before he wrote that Musa wrote off Belize Bank back taxes and his research revealed to him that all monies owed to the Government must be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund, and that Musa did not have the authority to write off the taxes.
Kareem Musa, however, pointed out that the taxes were not written off: they were “set off,” and there was nothing illegal about that. “Set off,” as explained to Amandala, is when the two parties who are indebted to each other agree to settle their debts through a settlement deed, without making actual payments.
Lawrence conceded that Musa could set off certain payments and agreed that it could have happened in this case.
Regarding the report about the alleged 8-million dollar contribution by Ashcroft to Mr. Musa ‘s party, Lawrence admitted that he did not have any proof of that, but said that it was not a fabrication.
Lawrence concluded by saying that all the things he wrote in the editorial were based on his logical conclusion.
Chief Justice Conteh reserved his judgment in the case after he heard submissions from both counsels.