New trial ordered in that YouTube defamation case

An expat who has become the poster boy for complicated court cases over property has won a new trial on his conviction for defamation.

The expat is Sheldon Haseltine, the president of a corporation that holds valuable land in the central Pacific coast near Los Sueños. He also is the man who put a video on YouTube critical of well-known businessmen who are seeking to take over his corporation’s land.

A criminal court convicted Haseltine of defamation Feb. 5 because of the video. A criminal appeals court panel overturned the verdict relating to Haseltine in a decision made known Tuesday.

As many expats know, truth is not a defense for defamation in Costa Rica. But there are exceptions. One is if the alleged defamation relates to a matter of public interest.  It is called excepción de verdad in the penal code.

In the video, as the appeals court decision notes, Haseltine said “Can you imagine that the law whose intention was to help the poor campesinos in Costa Rica is being used by rich millionaires to rip off the owners?”

Those who brought the action against Haseltine figured they were the rich millionaires. They are Armando González Fonseca, Fuad Farach Abdalah and Ricardo Jiménez Montealegre, all well known businessmen. Also in the case was Barva lawyer Otto Geovanny Ceciliano Mora.

The original trial court awarded the businessmen money damages.

Haseltine’s lawyer, Horacio Mejías Portuguez, raised several issues in the appeal, including the fact that those bringing the defamation claim had translated the video into Spanish and the court accepted that.

Several aspects of the translation are amusing to English speakers. In one case, the phrase rip off was translated as estafar, meaning defraud and a crime. Rip off in English is far broader and does not necessarily allege a crime.

The appeals court took note of that and also said the original trial panel should have viewed the video on YouTube. The three-judge appeals panel was critical of the trial court for several reasons, including the fact that the conviction confused several laws relating to properties.

Haseltine took most of the criticisms he aired on YouTube from the Spanish-language press. The appeals court noted that, too, and said that the trial court made an error in not letting Haseltine and his lawyer address the matter of public interest and truth. It also noted that in another case also related to property the judges quoted the lawyer Mejías reporting that some of the businessmen paid a squatter $700,000 for rights to property owned by Haseltine’s Ivanhoe Investment, Inc.

The appeals panel said “The truth exception is admissible and a route to the discovery of the real truth of the facts for the existence of a current public interest.”

The decision also said that “The abuse of the coastal properties, squatting and their taking by third parties who do not comply with the assumptions of law is real, public and existing.”

Haseltine and his company have been involved in property battles for the last 16 years. He is in criminal and civil court repeatedly, and sometimes multiple times on the same issue.

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