PARIS — An international tribunal that has spent five years and more than $325 million investigating a political assassination in Lebanon without making a single arrest finally got on Tuesday its first look at an accused in the dock. But it was none of the five men charged with complicity in the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
Rather, it was the unlikely figure of a female television executive from Beirut.
The executive, Karma al-Khayat, the 31-year-old vice chairwoman of Al Jadeed TV, had been summoned to appear at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on the outskirts of The Hague to answer charges of contempt of court and obstruction of justice.
An indictment accused Ms. Khayat and the parent company of Al Jadeed, New TV, of being criminally accountable for broadcasts that involved contacting possible court witnesses and disclosing confidential information about them in 2012. It also accused them of ignoring a subsequent court order to remove the material from the company’s website.
Al Jadeed broadcasts had shown blurred faces and did not disclose the names of people who it said had talked with court investigators. But the indictment contended that any discussion of confidential witnesses was a serious violation that would not only put people at risk but also hinder the tribunal’s functioning.
Ms. Khayat was aware that the exposés “would undermine public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to protect the confidentiality of information,” the indictment said.
The impact of these and other alleged leaks about witnesses is not known. Details were also published in a newspaper and on a hacked website. The court has declined to say whether the disclosures in the news media involved significant witnesses or merely investigators’ contacts, or whether anyone withdrew testimony as a result.
But Ms. Khayat and Al Jadeed have said that they are not guilty of contempt and that they will fight the charges as an issue of freedom of the press.
Ms. Khayat said in a telephone interview that an envelope was left one day at her office’s reception, when she was the station’s news editor. “It included the names of supposed witnesses and I sent a reporter to double-check and contact the people,” she said.
There were names that indicated that someone inside the investigation was leaking information, she said, and “we pointed that out in the story.”
Flanked by a team of lawyers on Tuesday, Ms. Khayat told the court that it was a fundamental right of journalists to investigate the work of the tribunal and the “secrets” that were said to have leaked from it.
“Our only crime is that we respected the highest standards of our profession,” she said, speaking through a court translator. “I came to the tribunal to defend my rights with your laws.”
In Lebanon, where opinions about the United Nations-backed special tribunal are as deeply divided as the country itself, even supporters of the court have spoken up in defense of the journalists. Large posters have appeared in Beirut showing a face with the tribunal’s logo plastered across its mouth and the same image has appeared on various news websites.
The newspaper Al Akhbar and its editor, Ibrahim al-Amin, have similarly been charged with contempt of court and obstruction of justice. In 2013, the newspaper published photographs, dates of birth, professions and other details about 32 people that it called confidential witnesses. Mr. Amin was not in court for the hearing Tuesday, and Al Akhbar sent no representative.
Mr. Amin and his newspaper have close ties to Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement, and have long campaigned against the special tribunal, calling it a tool of the West and Israel. In an editorial on Tuesday, Mr. Amin said the court was not legitimate and that he would not travel to The Hague.
But in court, Judge Nicola Lettieri said that Mr. Amin had sent a letter asking for more time to put together a defense team.
Reading from the letter on the bench, the judge, who is from Italy, said Mr. Amin described the accusations against him as “very serious” and that he feared for his safety as well as his family’s.
The proceedings underline how little the court has achieved since it opened in 2009. Long hampered by stonewalling and misinformation in Lebanon, and by internal setbacks and delays, it began its first trial in January.
But the five Lebanese men accused of complicity in planning the killing of Mr. Hariri — 21 others also died in the explosion — are all absent. The prosecution says the five men are close to Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government and has vowed never to arrest them.
Since January, 15 witnesses have been heard at the trial, but the proceeding have been in recess to allow defense lawyers for the fifth accused person, who was indicted in October, to catch up.
In the trial of the journalists, the debate about freedom of the press versus the weight of court confidentiality is likely to dominate. The trial is expected to begin later this year.
Ms. Khayat, who is well known as an investigative journalist, said that the Lebanese people were entitled to information about the Hariri killing even if the secretive tribunal was not providing it.
Marten Youssef, the court’s spokesman, said the vital issue in the forthcoming trial involved defining at which point the media breaks the law when dealing with court secrecy. “Since the start of the tribunal a lot of media have published confidential information and strong criticism, which in itself does not make for contempt of court,” Mr. Youssef said. “But publication with the deliberate intent of witness intimidation and interfering with the judicial process does exactly that. No international court would put up with this.”
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(via NY Times)