BEIRUT: The contempt prosecutor at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon asked the U.N.-backed court to summon the editor of a pro-Hezbollah newspaper to its headquarters in The Hague, and arrest him if necessary to secure his appearance, in the latest escalation in a controversial case against local journalists.
Kenneth Scott, the prosecutor in the case against Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin, asked “that the court issue a new summons ... requiring Mr. Ibrahim al-Amin, Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. and the newly appointed counsel, Mr. Antonios Abou Kasm, to all appear live, physically present at a hearing in The Hague.”
“If necessary to bring the accused before the court, arrest warrants should be issued,” Scott said in a filing before the court’s contempt judge, Nicola Lettieri.
A spokesperson for the court said that no immediate request has been made for an arrest warrant and the ultimate decision was up to Judge Lettieri. “It’s important to stress that there is no immediate request for an arrest warrant,” Marianne al-Hajj, the STL’s deputy spokesperson, told The Daily Star.
“Should Mr. al-Amin not participate in the proceedings, the contempt prosecutor asked the contempt judge to consider issuing an arrest warrant but at the end, this is something that the contempt judge only can decide on,” she added.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005 that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into turmoil.
Amin is charged with contempt of court and obstruction of justice over reports published by Al-Akhbar last year that included the personal details of individuals the daily said are confidential witnesses in the Hariri case.
The STL argues that the move was aimed at intimidating witnesses and undermining public confidence in the tribunal.
Though it is premature to speculate whether the court may order Amin’s detention, the threat of arrest raises the stakes in a case that has riled opponents and even some supporters of the court, who say its actions could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press in Lebanon, and who urge it to focus on its core mission.
In addition to Amin and Al-Akhbar, which has been consistent in its criticism of the court, the contempt prosecutor has charged Al-Jadeed TV and its deputy head of news, Karma al-Khayyat, for the same offences. Their accusations are linked to video reports that also revealed personal details of alleged witnesses.
Critics of the court say it has failed to prosecute those responsible for providing the witness information to the news outlets in the first place, and for not suing Western news outlets that have also published leaked, sensitive information about the Hariri investigation.
Amin appeared at an initial hearing before the court in May during which he denounced the tribunal and dramatically walked out from the session, saying he would maintain “complete silence” throughout the proceedings and rejecting any court-appointed defense lawyers.
The STL appointed Abou Kasm, a Lebanese lawyer, to defend Amin earlier this month.
Despite his vow of silence, Amin has continued to correspond with the court, calling for the removal of Judge Lettieri from the case and requesting permission to appeal Abou Kasm’s appointment. He had demanded a public apology from Judge Lettieri before considering appearing once again before the court.
Amin could not be reached for comment by telephone. Abou Kasm declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to discuss the case in the media because of Beirut Bar Association rules.
In an initial response, Al-Akhbar published an article that criticized the tribunal for taking “punitive measures” against Amin, and for implicitly threatening his arrest.
Scott said his latest move is driven by Amin refusing to clarify whether he will take part in his trial and his repeated assertions that he won’t respect court orders, raising fears that the editor may choose to leak confidential evidence in the case against him, such as the identity of witnesses. He described Amin’s attitude as “unreliable, unknown and impulsive.”
“Neither the contempt judge nor amicus can be required to continually guess at the accused’s intentions and whether they will, at any given moment, appear or participate in these proceedings,” Scott said.
Scott is an “amicus,” or a so-called “friend of the court,” who can be appointed to carry out specific investigations or tasks.
Scott outlined several incidents in which Amin appeared to deny ever participating in future hearings, and others in which he set conditions on taking part, sending mixed signals to the court.
He also said that he had “very serious concerns” about disclosing evidence to Amin, since the editor said he would not implement any of the court’s decisions.
Prosecutors are required to reveal all the evidence they will rely on at trial to defense lawyers, a process known as disclosure.
“The disclosure of protected information, including the identities and locations of witnesses, can have very, very serious – even life-threatening – consequences,” Scott said. “Amicus is seriously concerned about the risks associated with the accused coming into possession of disclosure material in this case.”