Is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon covering up the bribery of witnesses?

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(L-R) Judges Walid Akoum, Janet Nosworthy, David Re, Micheline Braidy and Nicola Lettier preside over the first hearing in the trial of four people accused of murdering former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague on January 16, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Toussaint Kluiters)

Published Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) does not miss an opportunity to undermine its credibility and damage its image. This behavior is not restricted to the public prosecutor’s office, but to the trial chamber itself, which is supposed to be keen on implementing justice and presenting a positive image of the tribunal to the public.

The latest development is a decision issued by the tribunal’s First Chamber, which is in charge of trying the defendants in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The decision stipulated concealing the amount of money that the public prosecutor’s office pays to witnesses under the rubric of “expenses.” On May 9, the tribunal issued a decision granting the prosecution’s office the right to conceal the amount from the defense teams.

The decision came after the defense team for Hussein Oneissi requested that the tribunal order the prosecution’s office to disclose information it has on whether two of the public prosecution’s witnesses or members of their families were paid money from the office itself, from the international investigation committee or from the Lebanese authorities. Oneissi’s defense team argued that the issue is relevant to its defense strategy since it casts doubt on the credibility of some of the witnesses the public prosecutor is going to present to the court. After deliberations, the court decided to keep the matter a secret and not force the public prosecutor to disclose the information.

According to the decision, the tribunal reviewed similar cases in other international courts whereby it became evident that courts cover the expenses and costs of witnesses living in the Netherlands. Besides, some international courts (and national ones, according to the STL’s First Chamber) have developed clear standards under which they pay the “expenses of the witnesses.” It added that some courts pay the witness a monthly stipend in lieu of their salary that they were receiving as compensation for moving to the Hague to testify. The amount is equivalent to the minimum wage that a United Nations employee earns in the country where the witness comes from. The tribunal pointed out that it reviewed the amounts that the prosecution’s office paid as expenses to the witnesses and found them “reasonable.” It added that the defense team did not present proof that the two witnesses received sums beyond what is deemed reasonable. Therefore there is no need to reveal how much was paid as expenses to them.

But neither the prosecution nor the tribunal were able to rule out whether the two witnesses or one of them or members of their families received money from parties other than the prosecution’s office. This will continue to be a point of contention in the future because of how deeply it affects the credibility of the witnesses’ testimonies, especially those that the public prosecution is going to present as witnesses to be relied on to convict the defendants even though their testimonies have changed from one stage of the investigation to another.

In another matter, the public prosecutor gave a bizarre excuse for not giving the defense team of one of the defendant’s documents it requested that include information on students at one of Lebanon’s universities between the years 2004-2005 in addition to information about specific individuals at the same university in 2006. The public prosecution’s office had received this information from the Lebanese authorities which never denied any of the former’s requests. The public prosecutor cited several reasons for turning down the defense team’s request including the claim that this information would enable the defense team to breach the confidentiality of one of its witnesses.

But the most bizarre and most laughable excuse is the public prosecutor’s claim, in his letter to the tribunal on May 9, 2014, that handing over this information to the defense team might “violate the privacy of these students.” Let’s remember that the public prosecution’s office had insisted on getting the Lebanese people’s telecom data, health records, university records, travel records, insurance records and market licenses and - as experience has shown - was unable to protect its records and prevent them from being leaked. This same office is now claiming to care for the privacy of Lebanese students in order to prevent the transfer of information about them to their own colleagues - the defense lawyers - at the tribunal.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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