On Wednesday, 24 February, the contempt trial of Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, will begin at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in Leidschendam, the Netherlands. Officially called STL-14-06: Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. & Mr Al Amin, the trial will investigate charges of “contempt and obstruction of justice” against Amin and Akhbar Beirut S.A.L., the company that owns the newspaper and of which Amin is the chairman. The charges arise from two articles written by Amin and published by Al-Akhbar on 15 and 19 January, 2013, listing the names, mothers’ names, places and dates of birth, places of residence, occupations, and photographs of over 30 alleged protected witnesses in the Ayyash et al. case investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
The prosecution is to present its case between 24 February and 1 March, after which the defense will make its own case between 7 and 13 April. Thereafter, the “Judges [will] examine evidence and exhibits after the closing statements and render their judgment in due course,” STL Registrar Daryl Mundis told NOW. Amin himself is not expected to attend any of the sessions, having declared in a 29 May, 2014, hearing that, “I do not acknowledge the legitimacy of this Tribunal.”
As set out in further detail in the above graphic, the prosecution is expected to argue that Amin knowingly and deliberately published the alleged witnesses’ identities to obstruct the administration of justice and intimidate witnesses. The defense, by contrast, is expected to contend that Amin had no such intention of obstructing justice, but rather was “merely performing his duty as a journalist.”
Like any other defendant in any other court, Amin is, of course, to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Nonetheless, some legal experts with whom NOW spoke said that in their personal legal opinions, on the basis of the available evidence they expected he would be found guilty.
“[Given] how much contempt they held the Tribunal in, Ibrahim al-Amin and his political faction, yes, I think [he will be found] guilty of contempt,” said Antoine Saad, a Lebanese lawyer.
Other legal experts, however, told NOW they believed there was no legal basis for a conviction.
“No evidence [against Amin] has been presented in court so far, there are only accusations,” said Omar Nashabe, a legal consultant to the STL defense teams representing the interests of the accused Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi, and Hassan Merhi, and also a co-founder of Al-Akhbar.
In the event that Amin is found guilty, he would face a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to €100,000 (approximately $110,000). In a similar but legally separate STL case, Lebanese journalist and deputy head of news and political programs at the local Al-Jadeed TV station, Karma Khayat, was found guilty of contempt in September 2015 and fined €10,000. Due to the more serious nature of the alleged contempt committed by Amin, Saad told NOW he expected the Al-Akhbar editor to receive a harsher sentence than Khayat’s, though he thought it would fall short of a jail sentence, “so that [people] don’t say they’re violating the [freedom of the] press.”
A press freedom issue?
Indeed, the fact that the accused in both the Amin and Khayat cases are journalists has led to criticism from some quarters to the effect that the Tribunal is violating Lebanese press freedom. A gathering of “solidarity” with the accused was hosted by the official Lebanese press syndicate in April 2014, and attended even by reporters from TV networks generally seen as supportive of the Tribunal.
In his Decision in Proceedings for Contempt with Orders in Lieu of an Indictment of 31 January 2014, STL Contempt Judge David Baragwanath addressed the question of press freedom, first stating its importance, quoting variously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the French writer Victor Hugo’s saying “sans la presse, nuit profonde” (“without the press, profound night”); and the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s argument that press freedom was especially crucial with regards to judicial matters.
Baragwanath then noted, however, that the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, “to which Lebanon has acceded,” holds that free expression is “subject to certain restrictions […] provided by law.” He concluded: “With respect to contempt of the Tribunal […] the freedom of the press must find its limits where it impinges upon the Tribunal's ability to function properly as a criminal court and to administer justice for the benefit of the people of Lebanon. In this regard, the Tribunal's contempt power expressed in Rule 60 bis is an acceptable limit on the freedom of the media to report on all matters concerning the Tribunal because it punishes only conduct that undermines the administration of justice. It leaves intact the ability of the press otherwise to comment on the Tribunal's work, including criticizing it.”
In conversation with NOW, the STL’s Head of Outreach and Legacy, Olga Kavran, also noted the existence of several precedents of journalists tried for contempt in international tribunals, most notably at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (see examples in above graphic).
However, one of the convictions of journalists at the ICTY, that of French reporter Florence Hartmann, faced condemnation from international press freedom advocacy groups, including Reporters Without Borders and Article 19, who argued Hartmann’s disclosures “helped to establish Serbia’s involvement in the 1996 Srebrenica massacre” and thus were in “the palpable public interest.”
No comparable denunciations from the two groups have yet come forth in the case of Amin.