Aug 29, 2016

Contempt Judge issues fine in case against Al-Amin and Al-Akhbar Beirut

On 29 August 2016, the Amicus Prosecutor and Defense for Ibrahim Al-Amin and Al-Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. submitted their positions vis-à-vis the sentencing of the accused. Judge Lettieri noted the absence of the accused in the courtroom and that the Registry attempted to serve Mr. Al-Amin with official notice of the proceedings. Though Mr. Al-Amin refused this notice, Judge Lettieri was satisfied that the accused had been made aware of the proceedings against him.

Amicus Prosecutor Submissions
The Amicus Prosecutor began his submission by noting that “[i]f there are no witnesses, there are no cases.” He added that if there are no cases, there naturally is no justice. He sustained that the gravity of the offense and the need for deterrence require a sufficient punishment. The Prosecutor insisted that nothing in this case was “left to the imagination.” Through the language and tone of the impugned articles, the actions of the accused sent a clear message that the witnesses whose personal details were published were to be regarded as “witnesses against Hezbollah.” The Prosecutor referred to a contempt case before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in which the Court noted that the characteristics of a community can aggravate the violation of witness protection orders. The Prosecutor thus argued that the actions of the accused constitute grave offenses in the politically charged Lebanese context. To make the point abundantly clear, the Amicus Prosecutor conjectured that if Mr. Al-Amin were in court today, he would tell the STL “to go to Hell.”

According to the Prosecutor, the aggravating factors of this case include the accused’s consistent disregard for the authority of the Tribunal, the actual harm suffered by the purported confidential witnesses, the specific intent deduced from the articles, and the lack of remorse or regret shown by the accused. He further noted that Mr. Al-Amin’s initial appearance for his suspect interview should not be considered a mitigating factor because he merely used it as a political platform and did not cooperate with the investigators.

The Prosecution proceeded to present more recent evidence of the accused’s lack of cooperation. Mr. Al-Amin appeared on a Lebanese television network to denounce the work of the Tribunal. In the interview, the accused likened the STL to Israel, denouncing both as an “occupation tool.” The accused went on to say that he did not care if the Court seized his assets or sought his arrest, but declared that he would resist its authority. The Prosecution presented this exhibit to underscore the accused’s lack of respect for the Tribunal and absence of remorse for his actions.

The totality of these circumstances led the Amicus Prosecutor to request a prison term for Mr. Al-Amin of 2 years, accompanied by a fine of €75,000. Curiously, the Prosecution contends that with respect to Al-Akhbar, each day that the publications were available constitutes a separate offense. This amounts to a total of 1,127 days of criminal conduct, leading the Prosecutor to request a fine of €112,700 (or €100 per day). Judge Lettieri noted that this amount exceeds the maximum amount sanctioned by Rule 60bis. The Amicus Prosecutor responded that because Al-Akhbar’s offense constitutes an ongoing crime, it would be within the Contempt Judge’s power to issue a fine of €100,000 per day (for a total of €112,700,000).

Defense Submissions
The Defense opened by reminding the Court, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Defense maintained that the unique nature of the charge against their clients requires a lenient sentence. In fact, the Defense stated that the moral condemnation resulting from the conviction of the accused functions as both a sufficient punishment and an adequate deterrent.

The Defense listed a number of mitigating factors. Firstly, they state that Mr. Al-Amin’s voluntary attendance of his suspect interview evidences his cooperation with the Tribunal. Contrary to what the Prosecution claims, the Defense believes that Mr. Al-Amin was cooperative during this interview and only reacted to provocative questions posed by the investigators as any person would. The Defense said that Mr. Al-Amin explained to the investigators that he intended to report on internal STL leaks, which are clearly relevant to public interest. At no point, according to the Defense, did the accused seek to obstruct the Prosecution’s contempt investigation.

The Defense additionally suggested that no significant tangible harm occurred as a result of his clients’ actions. Moreover, Counsel argued that the STL’s own attitude toward this case imply that the gravity of the conduct of the accused is minimal. The Defense highlighted the fact that it took three years for the Court to officially order the removal of the confidential information, at which time the accused complied. The Defense further argued that the number of confidential witnesses who testified in the contempt cases alone implies that public confidence in the Tribunal’s ability to protect witness confidentiality was not undermined. 

Counsel for the accused also argued that imposing a monetary penalty on Al-Akhbar would be unfair in light of the current financial crisis afflicting the Lebanese print media. The Defense claimed that a fine would only punish the Al-Akhbar’s employees and their families, amounting to a “tangible blow to freedom of the press in Lebanon.” Lastly, Counsel maintained that the facts of the present case would not amount to a crime under the Lebanese Criminal Code. Thus, it would be unfair to punish Mr. Al-Amin and Al-Akhbar for a crime that would not otherwise exist.

Amicus Prosecutor Rebuttal
The Amicus Prosecutor responded to the Defense’s submissions by emphasizing that “this is a court of evidence.” He noted that no evidence that suggests there was a leak within the STL has come to light. This would, in theory, undermine the journalistic integrity of the Al-Akhbar publications.  With respect to the Defense’s claim that moral condemnation is enough, the Prosecution referred to the interview that was presented and asked “Does that look like a man chastised?”

With regards to the financial situation of the Lebanese press, the Prosecutor noted, “This court is not charged with the responsibility for the health of the print media.” He went on to imply that the financial situation of Al-Akhbar could possibly be due to a number of causes including, provocatively, the poor quality of their journalists. Even more confrontational was the Prosecutor’s response to the suggestion that minimal tangible harm had occurred. He compared this defense to saying the same thing of a terrorist who carries a bomb into a crowded market but is unsuccessful in detonating it.

Defense Rebuttal
The most notable aspect of the Defense’s response to the Prosecution’s submissions pertains to the interview with Mr. Al-Amin that was later tendered into evidence. The Defense claimed that the context of this interview suggests that Mr. Al-Amin did not intend to voice hostility toward the Tribunal. According to the Defense, the program mainly covered topics relating to Israel. When the conversation shifted to the subject of Mustafa Badreddine, the Defense noted that Mr. Al-Amin did not take the opportunity to delegitimize the case against him. Furthermore, the clip that the Prosecution presented occurred during the end of the interview at around midnight. Counsel claimed that this interview was not broadcast by other stations. The Defense highlighted that in fact, their client has not undertaken a large media campaign in his personal defense despite ample opportunity to so.

Sentence issued
After a short break, the Contempt Judge issued the sentence: a € 20,000 fine for Mr. Al-Amin and a €6,000 fine for Al-Akhbar. Written reasons will follow in due course.