Special tribunal for Lebanon has put journalists in the dock. And for what?

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a fairly unassuming meeting room in central London shaking hands with a person who had been indicted by the Hague – and wishing the person luck.

This isn’t normal behaviour for me. As a keen supporter of the war crimes tribunal system, and a Nuremberg trials ‘fan’, with views formed by the atrocities committed as the former Yugoslavia broke up, Hague indictees are not normally my crowd.

But then not many are wandering round Bloomsbury. Karma Khayat is an investigative journalist, and the events that led to her indictment are as unusual as they are unsettling.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was founded by the UN to prosecute those accused of the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafic Hariri. If you followed Lebanon’s slow journey back from its 20-year civil war, then you will know how fragile the assassination made Lebanon, and in particular Beirut’s, renaissance appear. The country’s delicate political makeup is arguably not up to the job of running a high-profile, politically contentious trial where powerful people were suspected of involvement.

By contrast, sister body the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is heading towards its last few trials with a fairly inspiring record. It’s a well-run ship, which keeps a close and sensitive eye on its political and cultural impact – and has been very focused on the treatment of its witnesses.

Less so, it would seem the STL. The tribunal has been somewhat leaky, in ways that have placed witnesses in danger. Among other problems the names of witnesses were sent to the media – and were also available to people with a less benign interest in their identities.

Karma Khayat made a documentary for Lebanon-based pan-Arab TV station Al-Jadeed (also indicted). Al-Jadeed had been sent a list of witnesses, anonymously and unbidden, and made a documentary about the STL’s failings in this regard – contacting and interviewing witnesses, though never revealing their identity.

The result is that they have been charged with contempt and obstruction. Those accused of Hariri’s murder will be tried in abstentia – the journalist and her TV station will not.

The trial is listed to start on 16 April and, of course, may end in acquittals. But even if it does, just by bringing these charges the STL would seem to have unnecessarily risked the credibility of the international criminal tribunal system.

And for what? The suspicion must be that the tribunal is embarrassed – embarrassed that its poor operation of witness protection, and the compromise to witness safety that entailed, has been exposed. And perhaps embarrassed that on this count it does not measure up to the style and operation of a neighbouring tribunal.

On the facts available, a prosecution like this should be added to the blush-list. It feels as if the SLT has fallen below a certain standard, first in its operation, and then in its profoundly unstylish response to scrutiny.

Let us hope for the sake of international justice it can mend its ways on both counts.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor