BEIRUT: The trial of five members of Hezbollah accused of conspiring to kill former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will resume June 18, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon confirmed Thursday, as Lebanese lawmakers lodged the first formal protest against the court’s controversial decision to prosecute local journalists.
The Hague-based court’s Appeals Chamber upheld the mid-June resumption date despite protests by lawyers for Hassan Habib Merhi, a Hezbollah member indicted last summer, that they need more time to prepare their defense.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The trial of the first four suspects in the case began in January.
The accusations against Merhi were only made public last October, and his case joined to that of the other suspects in February. The in absentia trial was suspended to allow his defense lawyers to conduct their own investigations and examine the evidence in the case.
The hearing on June 18 will feature the prosecutor’s opening statements, outlining his case against Merhi, who is the only suspect accused of both playing a role in the surveillance of Hariri ahead of the attack and of orchestrating a false claim of responsibility for the bombing.
The court’s decision came as Lebanese lawmakers formally protested the controversial prosecution of journalists at Al-Jadeed TV, saying the STL had usurped the legislature’s powers and hinting that the court should drop contempt charges against the television station and its top editor.
The submission was the first formal protest to emanate from a branch of the Lebanese government in the case, which has drawn fire from critics who say the U.N.-backed tribunal is throttling freedom of the press in Lebanon.
“We write to you with our constitutional power as representatives of the Lebanese people with a legislative role that has put us on the front lines of public freedoms and qualified us over the years to become a shield that protects journalists, who seek it at times of oppression and internal and external interference,” said the letter to the court, which was published on its website.
The letter was signed by Jbeil MP Abbas Hashem, a member of Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc. It was unclear which MPs had jointly approved the letter, which was filed before the contempt judge at the STL, Nicola Lettieri.
Hashem could not be reached for comment.
The STL accused Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed, and Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor of Al-Akhbar newspaper, of contempt of court after their outlets published reports that included personal details of alleged court witnesses.
The court argues the reports were aimed at intimidating witnesses and undermining the public’s confidence in its work.
Both journalists face a maximum punishment of seven years in prison, a fine of 100,000 euros or both. The Lebanese MPs protested the punishments as overly harsh.
The MPs said they must defend Lebanese media institutions and urged the court to focus on its primary mandate of prosecuting those responsible for Hariri’s assassination.
The politicians’ letter said the tribunal had usurped the powers of the Lebanese legislature by prosecuting the journalists.
The relationship between Lebanon’s legislature and the STL is fraught with controversy. The court’s creation was never ratified by lawmakers due to Speaker Nabih Berri’s refusal to convene Parliament at the time. In response, the Security Council ordered its formation under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which compels states to adhere to the diktat of the international community.
MPs can file “amicus curiae” submissions, which are statements by so-called “friends of the court” who wish to weigh in about proceedings.
The STL also said that it would appoint a defense lawyer for Amin, the Al-Akhbar editor, despite his decision to walk out from a hearing intended to formally charge him with contempt last week.
Amin, who attended the hearing by video link from the STL’s offices in the Beirut suburb of Monte Verde, had emphatically rejected the court’s proposal to appoint a lawyer for him. He represented himself at the hearing.
Amin withdrew from the hearing after partially reading out a statement accusing the STL of oppression and the Security Council of wanton interference in Lebanon. He refused to plead guilty or not guilty in the case.
But Judge Lettieri said Amin’s actions would be interpreted as a plea of not guilty and ordered the court’s Defense Office to appoint a lawyer to represent the journalist.
If Amin participates in future proceedings and appoints council of his own choosing, then the judge would be ready to reconsider his decision to appoint a lawyer from the STL’s defense office, the court said.