Nov 6, 2014

Courageous decision by STL Contempt Judge ignoring Appeals Chamber decision to prosecute corporate entities

On 6 November Judge Lettieri, the Contempt Judge in the two contempt cases, decided to bypass a previous ruling by the Appeals Chamber, and instead ruled that the Lebanon Tribunal does not have the right to prosecute corporate entities, thereby ignoring the legal precedent previously set by the Appeals Chamber.

The cases
The Lebanon Tribunal (STL) is currently dealing with two separate contempt cases, dealing with similar substantive issues. The first is against NEW TV S.A.L. and Ms. Karma Al Khayat (Case No. STL-14-05) and the second against Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. and Mr. Ibrahim Mohamed Al Amin (Case No. STL-14-06). In both cases, the defendants, both natural and corporate, are accused of having published names of individuals alleged to be witnesses before the Tribunal. If proved, the defendants will be guilty of contempt of court. 

In the first contempt case against Ms. Al Khayat and her media corporation NEW TV S.A.L., Judge Lettieri had previously come to the conclusion that Ms. Khayat could indeed be prosecuted for contempt of court, but that her employer, the media corporation NEW TV, could not be prosecuted, as there is no basis in the laws governing the Tribunal for the prosecution of legal persons. The Amicus Prosecutor in charge of the contempt prosecutions appealed against Judge Lettieri's decision, and the Appeals Chamber ruled in favour of the Amicus appeal and concluded that not only natural persons, but also legal persons could be prosecuted by the Tribunal for contempt of court.

The second contempt case: Largely the same substance
In case STL-14-06, Judge Lettieri now faced the same legal issue as in the first case (though he argues in paragraph 73 that the facts of the case slightly differ). Having a clear previous ruling from the higher legal body of this Tribunal on this very particular issue, Judge Lettieri nonetheless decided to bypass the unambiguous ruling by the Appeals Chamber by insisting that the Tribunal does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute legal persons.

Discussion: Principle of legality
The substance of the discussion boils down to the principal of legality, i.e. whether the defendant, in this case the legal person of NEW T.V., could have been aware of the possibility of prosecution by this Tribunal for contempt of court. Judge Lettieri convincingly argues that NEW T.V. could not have been aware of this, and then the conclusion must be that the Tribunal has no jurisdiction, for an accused must be able to foresee that his behaviour will be judged criminal by a court.

Judge Lettieri extensively criticises the Appeals Chamber's analysis and argumentation in concluding that it could prosecute the legal person, even accusing the Appeals Chamber of citing "misleading" developments (paragraph 47) and of violating the legality principle (paragraph 51). Judge Lettieri considers:
45. In sum, the interpretation of Rule 60 bis is clear: the Rule is not ambiguous. It does not explicitly provide for the prosecution of legal persons. Even if one were to resort to interpretation as to what Rule 60 bis might implicitly mean, I believe that, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the Rules in their context and in the light of their object and purpose (as required by Rule 3), an interpretation of "any person who" encompassing legal persons would not sufficiently put on notice a corporate accused that it could incur criminal liability (footnotes omitted).
In his critique of the Appeals Chamber's decision, Judge Lettieri notably argues that in the same line of reasoning, the Tribunal could then prosecute States and international organisations for contempt of court (paragraph 53). He further criticises the Appeals Chamber's motive of effectiveness in concluding that legal persons should be included in its jurisdiction (paragraph 59). 

The discussion here is whether the Judge should indeed blindly follow the jurisprudence set by the Appeals Chamber, or whether he ultimately has to follow his own legal reasoning and instinct in coming to a conclusion in such matter.

We fully agree with the substance of the reasoning of Judge Lettieri (see here and here for our criticism of the Appeals Chamber's decision to allow prosecution of corporate entities), though at the same time acknowledging that in principle, the Judge should have been bound by the Appeals Chamber's decision. Blatantly ignoring jurisprudence of a higher body in the legal hierarchy is not done, to say the very least.

In principle, decisions by a higher legal authority are binding over lower judicial instances. Judge Lettieri discusses this in a separate section of his appeal (paragraph 66 ff.), acknowledging "the general need for consistency, certainty and predictability in the judicial decision-making at this Tribunal". However, Judge Lettieri correctly considers that at this Tribunal the Appeals Chamber's decisions do not create binding precedents. 

It is clear from the wording of Judge Lettieri's decision that he has not come to this conclusion lightly, but that his sense of justice required him to do this. He could have easily followed the Appeals Chamber decision, and no one could have criticised him for doing that, but instead, he decided to go against the flow and follow his own conscience. It was an unexpected and unconventional step to take, but a courageous one nonetheless.

The Appeals Chamber will undoubtedly again reverse this legal reasoning by Judge Lettieri. However, the fact that this Judge reiterated his position in this second contempt decision, combined with the fact that the Appeals Chamber decision was only decision by majority (Judge Akoum dissented), gives force to the argument that this Tribunal should not prosecute legal entities, and it may very well have an effect on this decision forming a precedent for future tribunals and courts trying to build on this for establishing jurisdiction over legal entities.

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