BEIRUT: In a show of defiance, Al-Akhbar newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Amin walked out of a contempt hearing at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Thursday, after delivering a tirade accusing the court of “oppression” and denouncing the U.N. Security Council that brought it into existence.
Sporting a pin bearing the portrait of slain Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, Amin dramatically withdrew from a controversial hearing meant to formally charge him with contempt and obstruction of justice for publishing secret details about witnesses who were allegedly set to testify on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“There appears to be no reason for my attendance,” Amin told Contempt Judge Nicola Lettieri, after the latter interrupted a speech by Amin that claimed that he had appeared before the court against his will.
Amin said the Italian judge had imposed “oppressive measures” by interrupting his statement, which also denounced the STL as a political tool whose backers fuel war and strife in Lebanon.
“I would like to go back to my home and my family,” Amin said.
“You are a free man and nobody is oppressing you,” Lettieri replied. “You decided to come out of your own free will. You are a free man and can do what you want.”
Amin said he would maintain “complete silence” throughout the proceedings and rejected any court-appointed defense lawyers, before removing his headphones and walking out of the tribunal’s offices in the Beirut suburb of Monte Verde, where he was speaking through video-link.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others, and plunged Lebanon into political turmoil.
The U.N.-backed court has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the attack. It will resume their trial in absentia in The Hague next month.
Al-Akhbar, a pro- Hezbollah newspaper, has been consistent in its opposition to the tribunal. The daily published in January last year two news reports that included personal details of individuals it said were going to testify in the Hariri case.
The incident, along with reports by Al-Jadeed TV that also revealed alleged witnesses, prompted a lengthy inquisition by the tribunal. The court argues that Al-Akhbar’s reports endanger the lives of the individuals, whether or not they were witnesses, and are intended to intimidate potential witnesses and undermine public confidence in the STL.
Judge Lettieri said at the start of the hearing that the accusations were not motivated by the newspaper’s criticism of the tribunal.
Amin’s walkout poses a unique challenge to the court, which may have to appoint a defense lawyer to represent him anyway, and proceed with a trial in absentia for the editor.
In his speech, Amin rejected the STL’s authority and said it had failed to take the most basic steps to ensure a fair trial.
“I do not accept the legitimacy of this court which was invented by the Security Council,” he said.
Amin said the Security Council had failed to secure the rights of the Palestinian people, and created the STL to investigate a single political assassination while ignoring Israel’s crimes during the 2006 war on Lebanon and the car bombings which targeted predominantly Shiite areas associated with Hezbollah in recent months.“There was no accountability of any form,” Amin said, describing the bombings as massacres and crimes against humanity targeting a single sect.
He added that the tribunal was created in contravention of Lebanese political norms. “Your court, your honors, is part of a political course,” he said.
The editor then said that Lebanese and regional powers that backed the court were responsible for plunging Lebanon into continuous turmoil.
“We all know that local, regional and international powers which stand behind the creation of the tribunal are the same that instigate enduring wars in my country, against my people, and against its heroic resistance that is standing up to American, European and Israeli terrorism,” Amin said.
Judge Lettieri then interrupted Amin, saying that the journalist had chosen to appear of his own accord, adding that the crimes he spoke of were not within the tribunal’s jurisdiction, prompting his withdrawal.
Amin had appeared without a defense lawyer.
The editor complained of unfair treatment at a news conference later in the day, seated next to his legal adviser Nizar Saghiyeh.
Saghiyeh outlined his clients’ concerns, which include whether the tribunal had the right to prosecute journalists for contempt, and whether appointing a defense lawyer in spite of Amin’s wishes contravened legal ethics.
Saghiyeh also questioned the claim that recent bombings in Lebanon and the 2006 war were not part of the STL’s mandate, saying the court treated the Hariri assassination like an “isolated island” divorced from broader society.
In an interview with Al-Jadeed, Amin said he would not appear again before the court unless he received a public apology from Judge Lettieri.
The case has sparked a protest campaign in Lebanon, with opponents arguing that the STL was stifling freedom of the press, and launching a massive Twitter campaign with the hashtag STLP (Support the Lebanese Press).
Amin faces a maximum of seven years in prison or a fine of 100,000 euros, or both, if convicted.
Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed TV, appeared before the court earlier in May to face similar charges.