A three-judge panel Wednesday acquitted expat Sheldon Haseltine of defamation in the latest development in his 17-year battle over property.
The private case was brought by three businessmen who felt they had been defamed by a YouTube video Haseltine has posted.
The trial, the second on the same allegation, was in the I Circuito Judicial de San José. Those who brought the case, Armando González Fonseca, Fuad Farach Abdalah and Ricardo Jiménez Montealegre, have the option of filing an appeal.
Judge Manuel Rojas Salas, who read the verdict, cited a technical reason involving when the video was posted.
He said that was not made clear to the tribunal.
However, he also spoke at length on the content of the video.
Haseltine is involved in a long-running property dispute near Los Sueños in the central Pacific coast. In the video he 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?”
His accusers tried to equate the verb rip off with the Spanish word for defraud, estafar. The judges agreed that the word has a broader meaning in English that does not always imply criminality.
The trial was held against the backdrop of a public outpouring of support for free expression in the wake of an unrelated bill proposed by the central government that would have restricted the electronic media. The bill has since been withdrawn.
In a recording of the verdict provided by Haseltine, the judge is heard to say that Costa Rica is a country of rights that apply not only to citizens but to foreigners as well.
The original trial court awarded the businessmen money damages.
An appeals court panel reversed the verdict for some technical reasons and also said that because the case is in the public interest, truth should be defense. That set the stage for a second trial.
The original case involves squatters invading the land owned by Ivanhoe Investments for which Haseltine is the legal representative. Costa Rican law protects squatters under certain conditions, and the land invader was able to sell out his interest to businessmen.