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Break the silence, hold your hearings

The independent Panel of Judges pronounced its judgment a few days back at the Nieuwe Kerk, The Hague. The panel of judges unanimously decided that “through their acts and omissions including the lack of investigations, the lack of reparation of the victims, and full impunity, the states of Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria are guilty of all human rights violations brought against them in the indictment by the Prosecution”.

“In view of the overwhelming and compelling evidence consisting of witness testimony including that of expert witnesses and those with personal experience; very substantial written documentation from individuals and organisations, the Tribunal has unanimously made the following finding:

Through their acts and omissions (the lack of investigation, the lack of reparation to the victims, and the full impunity) the States of Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria are guilty of all of the human rights violations brought against them in the indictment.”

It is important to understand that in more than eight out of ten cases, the murder of a journalist does not lead to a conviction, often because the government is negligent. That is why it is important to set a social boundary through your own hearings, argue two experts who are involved in such a project.

“If we don’t tell this story, it means we lost Nabil not once, but twice.” During the Syria People’s Tribunal session on the murders of journalists last May, witness Kholoud Helmi pointed to the sore spot when she spoke about the murder of young journalist Nabil Al-Sharbaji. History is written by the victors, in this case by the Syrian regime that portrays journalists like Nabil as enemies of the state.

Al-Sharbaji’s case is one of the issues discussed at this tribunal. The tribunal was set up by civil society organizations to do what many states fail in doing: take responsibility by prosecuting these murders. In more than eight out of ten cases, the murder of a journalist does not lead to a single conviction.

To draw attention to the problem of impunity, three hearings of the People’s Tribunal took place last year in which witnesses told their stories about three murdered journalists: in addition to the Syrian journalist Nabil Al-Sharbaji, Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, and Mexican journalist Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco. All three were killed due to their work.

Role of government: Prosecutor Almudena Bernabeu has sued the governments of Syria, Sri Lanka, and Mexico for failing to protect journalists, failing to prosecute the perpetrators, and sometimes even being involved in the murder. While these judges cannot convict perpetrators, they do hold a different kind of power. This tribunal has made two things clear: it makes sense to gather and assess evidence outside official courts, and that process is important for all of us.

First of all, the tribunal provides a platform for next of kin to express their grievances and be heard. The importance of this, even when prosecution of the perpetrators is not in prospect, is also clearly apparent in the MH17 lawsuit, which followed the MH17 attack in which nearly 200 Dutch people were killed. Although the perpetrators of the attack will probably be sentenced in absentia, Russia will not extradite people to the Netherlands and an arrest is therefore not easily in sight.

Truth finding: But there is also justice in the truth-finding itself. That specific value also increases over time. Piet Ploeg, next of kin and chairman of Stichting Vliegramp MH17, recently told a meeting in debate center De Balie that there are rumours on social media that the CIA was involved in the attack. Such conspiracies are terrible for relatives. A spotlight on the truth can be healing for bereaved families.

This also became clear at the People’s Tribunal. Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was murdered 14 years ago, said after the hearing of the Sri Lanka case: “This trial was the closest our family has ever come to a lawsuit and it has given our family new hope, courage and strength.”

War criminal: In addition, gathering evidence is not only important for family members’ sense of justice, but also for the actual chances of a future conviction. In some cases, after political change, it is still possible to convict the perpetrators on the basis of this evidence. While there is currently no immediate prospect of a lawsuit against Syria’s Assad, it wouldn’t be the first time this happens years later. In 2016, Chadian war criminal Hissène Habré was convicted in Senegal for crimes committed during his presidential term in the 1980s.

By collectively documenting and condemning crimes against journalists, we may not be setting a legal boundary, but a social one. That social boundary concerns us all, since the murders of journalists – who sometimes also make it to this newspaper – have a direct impact on everyone’s access to information. As Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a few weeks before his death, “Whatever sacrifice journalists make, they do it not for their own honour or glory, but for you.”

The tribunal, though symbolic in nature, aims to make a concrete contribution to the fight against impunity. As aptly described by Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders: “the fact that we have this tribunal is the first sign of hope, your tribunal does not have the capacity to put the perpetrators behind bars, but you have the capacity to name and shame.”

Evelien Wijkstra, "Break the silence, hold your hearings," The News. 2022-11-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political change , Human rights , Prosecution , Violence , Nabil Al-Sharbaji , Syria , Sri Lanka , CIA