Syed story leads to apology, payout

A January newspaper story that made various defamatory and untrue statements about a local attorney who at one time represented former University College of the Cayman Islands President Hassan Syed has been retracted and an apology has been made.

In addition, DCE Media Ltd., doing business as the Cayman Reporter, was required to pay for Human Rights Commission Chairman James Austin-Smith’s attorneys and pay an additional “substantial donation” at Mr. Austin-Smith’s request, to the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre.

A statement issued Sunday regarding the matter did not specify how much the newspaper company was required to pay as a result of the settlement. The Jan. 16 story that made the allegations concerning Mr. Austin-Smith’s representation of Syed was placed under an injunction by the Cayman Islands Grand Court and was the subject of a libel lawsuit filed last month.

Mr. Austin-Smith said Sunday that, following the issuance of the apology and payment of the respective sums, he would consider the matter closed.

“It is a source of regret that the publication in question failed to contact me before publishing, as it would have been possible to tell its editors that there was documentary evidence to prove that the allegations were untrue,” Mr. Austin-Smith said. “It is a further cause for regret that, having been contacted by me, it refused to remove the allegations until compelled to by the Grand Court [via the injunction].”

The text of the Cayman Reporter’s apology was issued on Sunday: “On Jan. 16, 2015 we published an article under the headline ‘Violation of rights could result in unfair trial.’ In that article we published allegations made by a law firm in Pakistan representing Mr. Hassan Syed, the former president of the University College of the Cayman Islands, about Mr. James Austin-Smith, a barrister, Cayman Islands attorney and the chairman of the Human Rights Commission.

“We sincerely and unreservedly apologize to Mr. Austin-Smith for publishing allegations which it is accepted are unfounded and completely untrue. This error in judgment is something we deeply regret. We have taken stock, and have reviewed, and adjusted our editorial policies to ensure an error of this nature does not happen again.

“We completely retract the untrue allegations and apologize for our mistake and for any distress caused to Mr. Austin-Smith by publication of the story. As a result of our error, we have agreed to pay Mr. Austin-Smith damages and costs and, at his request, to make a substantial donation to the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre.”

Defamatory statements, called libel in published form or slander in spoken form, can be considered a criminal offense under the Cayman Islands Penal Code. However, Mr. Austin-Smith said he had declined to take any further action regarding the story and indicated he would not comment further on the matter.

In the Jan. 16 story, the newspaper quoted from a letter that was sent to several Cayman media organizations – including the Cayman Compass – purporting to be from an attorney representing Hassan Syed. Syed is currently facing charges in Grand Court relating to theft, obtaining a pecuniary advantage and obtaining orders by deception. He left this jurisdiction in 2008, claiming to be suffering from a severe illness.

It was later revealed Syed left after the release of a financial audit to the UCCI board in April 2008 that found “unsubstantiated financial transactions for the office of the president.” Syed returned to the islands in May 2014 for a Grand Court appearance and was released on bail.

The accusations against Mr. Austin-Smith in the letter, which cannot be specifically reported because they are libelous, referred generally to Mr. Austin-Smith’s actions during his representation of Syed in the criminal case. Mr. Austin-Smith, who works for the Campbell’s law firm, has since ceased to represent Syed legally.

Cayman Reporter publisher Deon Ebanks has been contacted for comment on two occasions about the story, lawsuit and settlement agreement. He told the Compass that he was unable to comment on the matter.

Aside from the defamatory comments about Mr. Austin-Smith, the Cayman media has not been barred from publishing a number of other claims made in the Jan. 8 letter distributed to local press organizations by the Pakistani law firm purporting to represent Syed’s interests.

The Cayman Compass has not reported the remaining contents of the letter from Ikram Law Associates for various legal reasons, including Syed’s upcoming criminal trial.