Friday, May 15th, 2015. Aaron Humes Reporting: The case of Minister of State and area representative for Belize Rural North Edmond “Clear the Land” Castro as the claimant in a case of defamation concludes tomorrow, Friday, following all-day testimony today by the two term area representative.
He accuses constituent and former friend Alvarene Burgess and Great Belize Television (Channel 5) of impugning and harming his reputation by causing certain statements made by Burgess to be broadcast by Channel 5 separately on October 3, 2013, and November 12 and 13, 2013, in which it was alleged that he wrote letters of recommendations for Asian nationals to obtain visas to enter Belize for a fee, among other things, a charge he denies.
Hon. Castro was the first of three planned witnesses for his side to take the witness stand before Justice Courtney Abel, and in cross-examination by Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith and Anthony Sylvestre who represent Channel 5 and Burgess respectively, Hon. Castro said his records revealed that on only two occasions did he write such letters for clients of Burgess, who he said was to be paid for her work by a “business associate” of his that she was working for so that her husband could receive treatment for cancer.
Castro also said he had written such letters for other persons in the same line of work, but it was “not many”, although he could not say how many, and it was not for a personal fee.
Castro admitted he does not know and has never met the persons he recommended to obtain visitor’s visas, though he says he is not required to and the Immigration Department is not obligated to follow his recommendations.
But he does admit that it was risky on his part to sign his name to these recommendation letters, considering the possibility of human trafficking, money laundering and terrorism being involved, and would not do so again. However, the Minister was less sure if in light of the media probe into visa recommendations following the uncovering of the Won Hong Kim affair masterminded by fellow ex-Minister Elvin Penner in September of 2013, he was not allowing his integrity to be called into question by his actions.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow famously said that “hustling in Immigration” was one of the surest ways his administration could fall if uncovered, and he had ordered his colleagues to, “For God’s sake, stop it!”
Also raised during cross-examination was evidence of other alleged Castro misdeeds, including his removal from Cabinet in 2010 by Prime Minister Barrow over what he testified was an untrue allegation that he personally accepted money from a woman to facilitate a land transaction, and the Belize Airports Authority affair uncovered early in 2014, in which a total of 78 cheques covering BAA funds were distributed to alleged Castro intimates.
The Minister of State himself accepted one cheque, which he says he did not solicit, from the BAA which was under his control in the Department of Civil Aviation, to help pay for funeral expenses for his late mother because his own finances were stretched.
Hon. Castro is being represented by Senior Counsel Rodwell Williams. Smith on behalf of Channel 5 is seeking summary judgment on the issues of absolute and qualified privilege as defenses to defamation, saying that the station aired the report believing that it was true and concerned a matter of public interest. Burgess also claims that the statements she made were true and justified. Castro said he did not obtain an apology when asked for though the other side says they did not receive such a request
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