04 Aug Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. Guilty of Contempt, STL Found: One Small Verdict for a Tribunal, a Giant Leap for International Justice?
[Ekaterina Kopylova is a PhD candidate at MGIMO-University, Moscow, and a former Legal Assistant with the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.]
On July 15, 2016, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) Contempt Judge Nicola Lettieri entered a guilty verdict against two co-accused standing trial for designedly violating confidentiality of several purported Prosecution witness identities in the case of Ayyash, et al. The special thing about this verdict is that one of the co-accused is a Beirut-based corporation called Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. It owns the newspaper and website that hosted the two articles pretending to reveal confidential information on the protected witnesses – a conduct that, in the Judge’s view, may have affected public confidence in the Tribunal’s ability to protect such information, and the potential witnesses’ determination to cooperate. Therefore, on July 15, 2016, for the first time in history a corporation was convicted of contemptuous conduct by an international criminal tribunal.
Earlier this year, the STL acquitted of similar charges another Lebanese corporation. Ironically, Judge Lettieri, who may have opened a new chapter in the history of the corporate liability in international criminal law with these two verdicts, wished he would not: throughout the two contempt matters involving the corporate accused, he consistently expressed a firm opposition to the STL’s exercise of jurisdiction over corporate entities.
Obviously, both cases set an important precedent in terms of the corporations’ principled amenability to trial before international courts, for interfering with their administration of justice or possibly other criminal conduct. They may incite other tribunals to look more closely at their law for any impediments to the punishment of corporations. The plain reading of the Rome Statute, for example, does not preclude the institution of the Article 70 proceedings against a corporation – for destroying, tampering or interfering with the collection of evidence, as may be the case. The drafters’ rejection of the corporate liability for the core crimes at the preparatory stage is not necessarily indicative of any such intent in respect of the offences against the administration of justice.
However, the cogency of the proposed model of attributing responsibility to a corporation is rather limited. Specifically, having concluded to the absence of an applicable international model, Judge Lettieri borrowed wholesale the provisions of the Lebanese criminal legislation, requiring that the following facts be established: (i) criminal liability of a specific individual; (ii) this individual’s power to act in the name of the corporation; (iii) that the individual acted on behalf of or using the means of the corporation.
Judge Lettieri reasoned as follows:
“In its decisions, the Appeals Panel highlighted the “unique link between [Lebanese law] and this Tribunal” and the Tribunal’s “hybrid nature”. I thus find significant that the corporate Accused is domiciled in and substantially operates in Lebanon. As it was foreseeable from Lebanese domestic law that certain conduct might give rise to corporate liability, I consider that looking to the material elements of the pertinent Lebanese law would not violate the rights of the Accused; particularly in the absence of contrary provisions in the Tribunal’s Statute or Rules. Finally, I am mindful that, in addition to being the domicile of the corporate Accused, Lebanon is where the alleged acts and conduct in this case occurred and more broadly is at the heart of the Tribunal’s mandate”.
From this reasoning, it is unclear whether Lebanese law is intended generally to govern corporate responsibility at the STL, or whether the applicable law will each time be determined by one or a set of connecting factors, such as the accused’s place of registration, place of business, and/or place of crime.
On the plain reading of the appeals decision, the Appeals Panel is tending towards the second option. In affirming Judge Lettieri’s reasoning, it circumscribed its scope of application to the facts and circumstances of the matter under review, stating: “In light of these factors, the Appeals Panel finds that, in this case, the elements for the attribution of criminal liability to legal persons are to be found in Lebanese law under Article 210 of the [Lebanese Criminal Code]”.
There is nothing inherently flawed about the connecting-factors-based approach to the choice of law governing the corporate accused’s liability. However, it makes no contribution to the development of a general international corporate criminal liability concept.
In developing such concept, inspiration should be sought elsewhere in international law. The law on the responsibility of international organisations for internationally wrongful acts may be informative. The 2011 International Law Commission’s Articles on the matter contain a detailed overview of the different case-scenarios under which a conduct may be attributable to an international organisation. Contrary to the STL’s model, the Articles do not, for instance, predicate the entity’s responsibility on the established responsibility of a concrete individual or organ within this entity.