The newspaper’s leaks demonstrates the lengths to which opponents of the tribunal will go to undermine its mandate: to investigate who was behind the powerful car bomb that killed the former Lebanese PM, Rafik Hariri, and 22 others in 2005.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The first shock came when a leading Lebanese newspaper published a confidential list of 17 witnesses who may testify in the murder trial of a former prime minister — showing their names, passport pictures, dates of birth and where they work.
A spokesman for the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon quickly condemned the publication, in January, as a serious breach of court rules that put the lives of those named at risk.
But the response of the newspaper, Al Akhbar, which is close to the militant movement Hezbollah, was defiant. A few days later it published a second confidential list, splashing the names, pictures and personal details of another 15 possible witnesses across two pages.
The newspaper’s actions seemed to underscore the lengths to which opponents of the tribunal will go to undermine its mandate: to investigate who was behind the powerful car bomb that killed the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and 22 others in 2005. The leaks raise the likelihood that witnesses may be silenced by fear or coercion, which could seriously weaken the prosecution’s case.
The witnesses’ names “were clearly published with the idea of scaring people and preventing any cooperation with the court,” said a lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is linked to the trial. “The editors called the court’s bluff, because they know they won’t be arrested.”
Al Akhbar has long campaigned against the tribunal, which is based in the Netherlands for security reasons. The tribunal has charged four Hezbollah members, although their whereabouts is unknown and the current plan is for them to be tried in absentia.
Hezbollah, the strongest faction in Lebanon’s government, has denied any involvement in the bombing, denounced the tribunal as a tool of the United States and Israel and has warned that it will never allow the arrest of its members.
According to the indictment, the men are linked to Mr. Hariri’s death based on extensive telephone records, including calls made just before a huge bomb killed the political leader as his armored car drove down a seaside boulevard in Beirut.
Early reports pointed to high-level Syrian participation in the assassination, but prosecutors have not disclosed new evidence of such a link. But the possible involvement of Hezbollah militants has enormously complicated the challenge facing the tribunal, which is preparing to start its first trial since it opened in 2009. Hezbollah is not only part of Lebanon’s governing coalition but also has its own powerful military force.
Further, if the long-delayed trial goes ahead, it is expected to revive the perennial debate about whether the pursuit of justice can do more harm than good, in this case compounding political tensions or even provoking more bloody clashes between Hezbollah and its pro-Western rivals at home.
However, some experts believe that the court’s potential as a catalyst for unrest has now been largely overshadowed by the Syrian civil war, raging a few hours’ drive from Beirut. The conflict has already mobilized competing political players in Lebanon, with different factions sending fighters to both sides of the war in Syria.
Even so, Al Akhbar’s identification of possible witnesses has stirred controversy in Beirut.
“This was another form of sabotage of the tribunal; there’s been a long campaign to prove it’s not credible,” said May Chidiac, a former television news anchor. Ms. Chidiac was moving slowly among guests at a dinner recently because she lost part of an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under her car several months after Mr. Hariri’s assassination. Her case also remains unsolved.
Facing criticism, the editor of Al Akhbar, Ibrahim al-Amin, wrote that naming witnesses was “part of what the public is entitled to know.” He argued that the leak was no different from the many past disclosures about the Hariri investigation published in Lebanon or abroad. Yet, while court documents and details about the investigation have indeed appeared before, this was the first public disclosure of potential witnesses.
Mr. Amin also suggested that it was an act of retaliation. Al Akhbar had published the list, he wrote, in response to “the international campaign of fabrication targeting the resistance,” meaning Hezbollah.
That appeared to be a reference to the current efforts by Israel and the United States to have the European Union designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This would mean cracking down on its travel and fund-raising across the Continent.
The tribunal’s formal response to Al Akhbar has been low key. Martin Youssef, a spokesman, said a letter had been sent to Lebanon’s attorney general, asking him to inform the newspaper of its violations. He said the court would not comment on whether anyone the newspaper identified was a witness. “But the effect is the same,” he said. “This is meant to intimidate all witnesses.”
Safety of witnesses has been a thorny issue for all the new international criminal courts. All have witness protection programs, but they mostly depend on local authorities for enforcement.
At the United Nations tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, journalists and lawyers have been tried for contempt of court over the revelation of names or confidential transcripts of protected witnesses. Some have had to pay fines or serve prison sentences.
“It’s a very serious issue,” said Abbe Jolles, an American defense lawyer who has worked at the Rwanda court, “a number of times people have withdrawn as witnesses after their names came out.”
The Hariri trial, provisionally scheduled to start in The Hague on March 25, is again expected to be delayed. Defense lawyers have complained that the prosecution has not yet disclosed all of its evidence, that the electronic database is not fully operating and that the Lebanese government has ignored all their requests for information.
“Now we wonder if there will be any witnesses,” said one researcher who has worked for the court.
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