The Special Tribunal for Lebanon held a closed session Tuesday, its fifth consecutive day of confidential proceedings. Following the introduction of counsel, the court redacted its entire public broadcast save for brief announcements by the presiding judge. “All hearings and proceedings at the STL are held in open sessions - that is the rule,” tribunal spokesperson Wajed Ramadan told The Daily Star. “However, there are some exceptions. Judges may decide to hold a closed session if confidential matters need to be discussed.”
The court has bestowed protective measures on a large number of witnesses, obscuring their faces and voices, and many of the individuals referred to in the proceedings are done so anonymously. When asked to identify other persons of interest, judges will sometimes request that witnesses write a name on a piece of paper rather than speak it aloud in court. It is not rare for the tribunal to move briefly into a closed session during testimony, and counselors will often request the sessions to pursue specific lines of questioning. Public transcripts are redacted accordingly.
According to Ramadan, “the Trial Chamber may order that the press and the public be excluded from all or part of the proceedings for reasons of public order or morality, security, a state’s national security interests, nondisclosure of the identity of a victim or witness ... or the interests of justice.”
But the court has never held such an extended series of closed sessions. Maintaining the anonymity of victims and witnesses has appeared to be their most commonly used purpose, but the decision to move into a private session is made by the trial chamber, and it does not elaborate on its reasoning. Absent content or motivation, it is difficult to speculate.
The court has a self-imposed responsibility to conduct its proceedings transparently, and has at times made public the contents of closed sessions upon further review. But it also has a troubling history of the identities of witnesses being leaked to the press.
The tribunal has charged Al-Akhbar Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Amin and his paper with contempt of court and obstruction of justice for publishing the identities of confidential witnesses in January 2013. His trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 24. In September, Kharma Khayat of Al-Jadeed TV was convicted on a similar charge and fined 10,000 euros ($10,800); both parties have appeals pending in her case.
The tribunal will resume Wednesday.