BEIRUT: The trial of five Hezbollah members accused of complicity in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will not resume until at least late June, in yet another delay for the court prosecuting the case.
The delay came as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announced the timetable for the controversial first hearing on May 13 involving senior Lebanese editors who will stand trial for contempt.
Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed, is scheduled to appear before an STL judge Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. Beirut time. Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor-in-chief of the pro- Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, is set to appear at 4:30 p.m., the court announced in a statement.
The two journalists are charged with contempt for “knowingly and wilfully interfering with the administration of justice,” according to the STL. The accusations are related to Al-Jadeed and Al-Akhbar publishing personal details of individuals who they said are witnesses in the case.
Khayyat and Amin can appear in person before the court or via video-conference, and if convicted could face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, a fine of 100,000 euros, or both.
The STL, which is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others, issued a robust defense of its contentious decision to try the journalists.
Critics accused the tribunal in recent days of throttling freedom of the press in Lebanon, abusing its power and double standards, since it did not fight Western news outlets that published sensitive, leaked details of the Hariri investigation.
In a detailed rebuttal to the attacks, the STL argued that the trial “would reduce the risk [that] the public will lose confidence in the ability and will of the tribunal to protect witnesses.”
It also defended itself against charges of curtailing freedom of the press by saying that publicizing the names of protected witnesses has serious consequences on the STL’s work.
“The freedom of expression guarantees everyone’s right to hold opinions and expressions, receive and impart information and ideas as long as they are in accordance with the applicable laws,” the court said. “The freedom of expression is not absolute and journalists and media organizations must comply with the law.”
The STL also confirmed the investigation into the Al-Jadeed and Al-Akhbar incidents showed the alleged witness details were likely not leaked to the outlets by tribunal personnel.
But the court did not offer a convincing argument for why the leaking of sensitive investigation details was not considered a serious enough violation to be prosecuted.
German magazine Der Spiegel first disclosed the alleged involvement of Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination in 2009, relying on leaked documents. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published a report in 2010 that revealed sensitive details including the investigation’s breakthroughs in tracking phones used by the suspects involved in the assassination.
The Hague-based court initially indicted four members of Hezbollah in connection with the killing. Their trial in absentia began in January.
But a fifth member of the party, Hassan Merhi, was indicted last summer and his trial was joined to that of the other four suspects. Merhi is accused of being one of the leaders of the assassination team, allegedly playing a key role in plotting a false claim of responsibility for the attack by a fictitious, extremist group.
While joining the two cases makes logical sense – Merhi is accused of conspiring with the other suspects to carry out the same crimes – it poses a dilemma for the court which is obliged to give Merhi’s lawyers enough time to conduct investigations and prepare their defense.
The court’s trial chamber said in a filing on the STL website that trial would resume shortly after June 16, the date when Merhi’s lawyers are expected to file their “pre-trial brief” – a document outlining their theory in the case.
Judges had initially said they would need until at least the middle of May before resuming trial.
The court is expected to decide on a new date for resuming trial at a “status conference” Monday, during which it will address issues related to Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL. Defense lawyers accuse the Lebanese authorities of failing to cooperate with their investigations.
The court’s dilemma was sharply illustrated in a dissenting opinion published on the court’s website and written by Judge Janet Nosworthy, a sitting judge on the trial chamber.
Judge Nosworthy said Merhi’s defense lawyers should be given until mid-July to file the pre-trial brief, and trial should not begin again until September or October.
She argued that the high volume of evidence, expert reports and testimony, as well as the highly technical nature of the telecommunications evidence that forms the backbone of the prosecution’s case requires giving the defense more time to prepare.
“Giving the Merhi defense a longer and more appropriate period ... will provide additional time for research and investigation, and allow them to be suitably informed and bring them to a sufficient stage of preparedness,” Judge Nosworthy said.
“This in turn will better serve the judicial process in its search for truth and justice, being also consistent with the primary interests of the victims.”