In Lebanon contempt cases, absence does not make the court grow fonder
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) last month began hearing one of two contempt cases. Each charges a Lebanese media company [IJT-167] and a senior journalist with having “knowingly and wilfully interfered with the administration of justice” by publicizing information about purported confidential witnesses in the main Ayyash et al. case.
Compared to the court’s core business – a groundbreaking international terrorism trial that seeks to uncover who a decade ago killed Lebanese ex-premier Rafik Hariri – the contempt cases have short temporal scopes and foreseeably finite trial durations. And unlike the leading litigation against five members of Hezbollah who are all still at large, the contempt cases have locatable defendants who have vociferously pleaded not guilty.
But even if less legally complex, these side suits have aroused more scepticism, and downright anger, within a sectarian society long split in its opinions on the UN-established tribunal. The rallying cry is that the STL is muzzling Lebanon’s press freedom. A Facebook page self-described as an activist-launched campaign in support of the two media organizations facing “smear accusations” at the tribunal has 16,000 likes. Its cover image shows a mouth taped shut by the court’s emblem.
The contempt proceedings, moreover, dramatize what many agree is the thorniest challenge to the STL’s work: trial in absentia [IJT-139].
A first “face-to-face”