THE HAGUE: A Lebanese television station was yesterday cleared of charges of contempt for publishing details of witnesses in the trial of the alleged killers of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon also cleared Al-Jadeed television’s deputy chief editor, Karma Khayat, of one charge of contempt, but found her guilty of obstruction of justice for failing to remove the broadcast from the TV’s website and social media as ordered.
Set up in 2007, the court is the only international ad hoc tribunal with the jurisdiction to try an act of terror. It is specifically trying suspects charged with the murder of Hariri, killed with 22 others in a massive suicide car bombing on the Beirut waterfront on February 14, 2005.
No Criminal Act
The prosecutor “has not proved that… Al-Jadeed committed a criminal act,” presiding judge Nicola Lettieri told the hearing at the tribunal’s fortress-like building. However, Khayat herself “was at least wilfully blind to the (court’s) order,” to remove the broadcasts from the station’s website as well as from the YouTube social media video channel. Al-Jadeed – which had been critical of Hariri -broadcast five programs in August 2012 on the alleged witnesses due to testify at the highly-sensitive trial.
The prosecutor had later said “11 witnesses were approached,” raising concerns about protecting the identities of those giving evidence. Five suspected members of the Iran-backed powerful Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, have been indicted by the court. Their trial in absentia opened in January 2014, but despite international warrants for their arrest, the five are yet to appear in court. While Al-Jadeed had concealed the witnesses’ faces and names were not mentioned, “nobody was fooled” about their identities, prosecutors told the judge during the trial. In August a tribunal judge also ordered Khayat and her station to take down the broadcasts.
‘Shooting the Messenger’
In his ruling, the judge found that although three of the 11 witnesses could be identified thanks to the television broadcast the prosecution had not proved “the individuals concerned suffered any harm from the disclosures”. Nor did the disclosures “undermine public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to protect the confidentiality” of witnesses. Speaking from Lebanon, Khayat gave a scathing reaction. “The verdict of innocence in the contempt charge means that you (the STL) wasted our time and disrupted our workflow for two years, and in the end, we were right.”
Referring to an email ordering the broadcasts to be removed which Khayat said she had not opened, she said “a single email cannot be considered enough evidence against me.” The court “took this decision (to convict me) just to save face. (At) this stage it isn’t over yet.” Khayat is the first-ever accused to appear willingly before the STL, a hybrid tribunal that uses both international and Lebanese law in its judgements.
At the trial’s opening in April, Khayat told the court her television station aimed to ensure that money to fund the tribunal was not being squandered. Her lawyer Karim Khan said prosecutors were “shooting the messenger” because Al-Jadeed was not responsible for any leaks of the witnesses’ identities. Khayat faces a maximum seven-year prison sentence, and/or a fine of up to Ä100,000 ($106,000) and had denied the charges.
Khan told journalists yesterday even though he was satisfied that Al-Jadeed was acquitted, he would appeal the judgement against Khayat. “What I am most happy about is that we won three out of the four charges. What is left (the guilty verdict) is still being heavily contested by the defence,” he said. “But ultimately this is a case that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place,” he said. – AFP