Ned Whalley, Susannah Walden
Attorneys at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon began their defense of Al-Akhbar Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Amin Thursday, fighting charges that he used the paper to intimidate witnesses and undermine public confidence in the court. Amin and the paper’s parent company have been charged with contempt of court for the January 2013 publication of photographs and personal details of confidential witnesses scheduled to appear before the tribunal, which is prosecuting five men linked to Hezbollah for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Prosecutors contend Amin published the witness list in order to frighten witnesses and dissuade others from coming forward.
Defense attorney Antonios Abou Kasm sought to cast doubt on this assertion by calling witnesses whose identities were divulged.
“I still value the court, I respect justice, and I respect the judges. What was published was my picture and before that my picture had already been published without my permission. It happens. It’s just incidental now,” Najib al-Harrat told the court.
Harrat testified in a statement that publication of the article did not affect him personally or professionally. He remained in the same residence with the same job and did not pursue legal action against Al-Akhbar.
Amin has defended publication of the list, and alleges the court is part of a Western conspiracy to discredit Hezbollah. In a pre-trial hearing he appeared via video link to announce that he did not recognize its jurisdiction and would exercise his right to remain silent before removing his headset and storming off camera. Abou Kasm, a member of the Beirut Bar Association and a professor at the Lebanese University and Universite St. Joseph, has been appointed by the court to defend him.
Abou Kasm’s second witness was Mahmoud Assi, manager of the Sidon branch of the Capital Insurance and Reinsurance Company. Assi first appeared before the tribunal in October as a witness for the prosecution. According to prosecutors, a BMW registered and driven by defendant Salim Jamil Ayyash was involved in a single vehicle collision outside Sidon in 2004.
Assi told the court that as a collision expert, his name appeared atop a list of numbers to call in case of an accident. He testified that he received a call that night, but referred the client to a colleague.
Prosecutors have linked that call to a number used by Ayyash, part of a much larger effort to attribute cellular phones to the defendants. They contend that the bombing was planned and coordinated on dedicated groups of phones that had been acquired for the purpose.
Assi Thursday said that he was largely unbothered by the publication of his personal details, though he did meet with Amin and asked that he be allowed to issue a clarification.
“I was not subject to any kind of threat or harassment following the publication of said article,” Assi said.
“I asked that the clarification would contain information saying that I have nothing to do with the case and that I have no relation with the people accused.”
Under cross examination, Assi was pressed on what drove him to issue the clarification, in which he stated that his public association with the trial generated “negative comments among malignant people in my surroundings.”
Assi brushed off the questions with a series of generalizations, offering only that he wanted to clarify the matter for the public and head off any false rumors. Even when pushed by Judge Nicola Lettieri, he refused to answer the question directly.
Assi emphasized that his involvement in the case was limited to his professional capacity as a collision expert for an accident that took place months before the assassination occurred which he did not even work on. He referred to himself as a witness “who had not seen anything.”