THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Lawyers at an international court accused a Lebanese news outlet of contempt of court on Tuesday for publishing the names of witnesses involved in the case of a 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in The Hague was set up in 2009 at the urging of Western governments and with the support of Lebanon's then-government to investigate Hariri's killing, but Lebanese support for the tribunal has been mixed.
Charges were read out in court against Lebanon's Al-Jadeed TV and Karma al-Khayat, Deputy News and Political Program Manager, who published in August 2012 the previously secret names of witnesses who were called or could have been called to the investigation of the bombing.
They were accused of two counts of contempt and obstruction of justice - that they "willfully interfered with the administration of justice" and that Khayat had the authority to remove the names of the witnesses from al-Jadeed's website but did not, despite an order from the STL Pre-Trial Judge.
"Khayat knew that publishing the episodes on al-Jadeed's website ... would undermine public confidence in the tribunal's ability to protect the confidentially of information," the charge read.
Al-Jadeed and Khayat pleaded "not guilty" and Khayat told the tribunal that Al-Jadeed's only crime "is that we have respected the highest standards of our profession".
The STL is trying five suspects in absentia for the killing of Hariri and 21 others but all are in hiding. The five men are all members of Hezbollah, a political party and paramilitary group that is powerful in Lebanon.
The Shi'ite Muslim group denies any role in killing Hariri, a billionaire Sunni Muslim politician, and says the suspects will never be handed over to the court, which it says is a tool of U.S. and Israeli interests.
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said on Tuesday the court was "illegitimate and lacks legality". Speaking at a live viewing of the hearing in Beirut, he said the court was "politicized".
"We are here to affirm solidarity with the freedom of the media and also solidarity with the Lebanese constitution, which is violated when there is a Lebanese media figure in front of an international court outside the framework of Lebanese law," he said.
The STL has also brought charges against the pro-Hezbollah news organization Al-Akhbar and its co-founder Ibrahim Al-Amin for the same charges in its newspaper editions of January 15 and 19, 2013.
Amin said in an editorial on Tuesday he did not respect the legitimacy of the STL and would not travel to The Hague.
"We are keenly aware that one of the reasons we are being targeted is because we stand at the heart of the battle of the Resistance (Hezbollah) which represents the holy of our holies," he said.
It was not clear when the STL would try Al-Akhbar and Amin.
The maximum penalty for contempt of the tribunal is seven years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 Euros ($137,600).
Writing by Oliver Holmes in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones