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New Hague Tribunal to Investigate Murders of Journalists

FILE - A banner calling for justice is seen next to a photo of assassinated anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia at the bomb site, in Bidnija, Malta, April 15, 2018.

For four years, the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia has been fighting to secure full justice for the blogger, who was killed by an explosive device near her home in Malta.

"Nothing prepares you for this. There isn't anything in the world that can tell you what it's like," the journalist's sister, Corinne Vella, told VOA.

Since Caruana Galizia's death in October 2017, Vella has helped run a foundation fighting for justice in the case.

That slow road to justice in such cases is a driving factor behind the creation of a people's tribunal at The Hague.

FILE - A person holds a placard depicting Daphne Caruana Galizia, prepared by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as people gather at the site where the journalist was assassinated in a car bomb one year ago, in Bidnija, Malta, Oct. 16, 2018.
FILE - A person holds a placard depicting Daphne Caruana Galizia, prepared by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as people gather at the site where the journalist was assassinated in a car bomb one year ago, in Bidnija, Malta, Oct. 16, 2018.

Set up by a coalition of press freedom groups, the tribunal is scheduled to begin hearing cases next month, giving many families and advocates hope that widespread impunity in the murders of journalists will be addressed.

Since 1992, more than 1,400 journalists have been killed, and in eight out of 10 cases, no one has been held accountable, according to Free Press Unlimited, one of the organizations behind the tribunal.

"To be honest, I was not aware of how many attacks on journalists there were," Almudena Bernabeu, who will be the lead prosecutor, told VOA. "I think that the need for this tribunal came to light to me as frankly an effort to put it out there to give it a voice."

The problem of impunity affects even high-profile cases, like that of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three years ago. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, is slated to be one of many key witnesses who, along with relatives of Caruana Galizia, will testify at the new tribunal.

Justice lacking

Efforts to secure justice in the Khashoggi case have not gone far enough, critics say.

A trial in Saudi Arabia was widely criticized by the international community as not meeting international standards.

In a separate case, Turkey put several high-ranking Saudi officials on trial in absentia, but not Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has been widely accused of approving Khashoggi's murder.

Reports by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and a U.N. special envoy both link Salman to the killing, but he has consistently denied involvement.

Bernabeu, who has a background in human rights law and cofounded the Guernica Center for International Justice, which defends the rights of victims in legal proceedings, describes the lack of justice in these cases as a kind of "double impunity."

In addition to protecting officials who may be responsible for the murders of journalists, governments that don't complete thorough investigations may be protecting themselves as well, she said.

"Though they are not the ones that are under attack or the object of a bad investigation, they're protecting themselves for the future," she said.

Tribunal cases

The tribunal's first hearing is scheduled for November 2 — the U.N. international day to end impunity for crimes against journalists.

It will focus on the cases of Lasantha Wickramatunga, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, and Nabil Al-Sharbaji, who were murdered in Sri Lanka, Mexico and Syria, respectively.

All three took on controversial issues. Wickramatunga, then editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper known for being critical of the government, had also received multiple threats.

FILE - Sri Lankan mourners gather at the grave of Lasantha Wickramatunga, in Colombo, January 8, 2017.
FILE - Sri Lankan mourners gather at the grave of Lasantha Wickramatunga, in Colombo, January 8, 2017.

Syria and Mexico have high numbers of journalists murdered in connection with their work. But killings can happen in countries deemed more stable or safe, experts say.

"It does not have to be a country in conflict — as we understand conflict in the traditional sense of armed conflict — in order for this to be a problem," Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, communications and advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA.

Vella notes that her sister's murder happened in what many would consider a stable Western democracy.

"Nobody expected that something like that could be possible in a European Union country," she told VOA. "We can only assume that if it's bad in places which traditionally protect rights, values and free expression … it can only be that much worse in places which have none of those advantages."

Caruana Galizia had been investigating the Panama Papers and corruption at the time of her death.

Malta has arrested three suspects, and sentenced one in February to 15 years in prison for involvement in the case. In August, Malta announced that a prominent businessman who Caruana Galizia's reporting tied to the Panama Papers would stand trial for her murder. A date for the trial is pending.

But a public inquiry indicated this year that the Maltese government should "shoulder responsibility" for her killing and ensuing impunity.

The people's tribunal will not have powers to punish or sentence anyone, but those involved say the process of investigating the circumstances and suspects involved will benefit press freedom globally, even if government leaders are unlikely to appear in the court themselves.

"It's about embarrassment. There's a lot of power when you are naming publicly, out loud, a country that has been irresponsible, or authorities that have been neglecting a particular investigation," Bernabeu said. "Nobody likes to hear that about your own systems and your own institutions. I think there's value in naming these things as they are and putting them out there in the public sphere."

For families of journalists like Caruana Galizia, another benefit is keeping the victims' names in the headlines and putting a human face on statistics.

"One of the most important things that can happen is to keep attention focused on individual cases so that they are not seen simply to be a statistic, that people remember you're talking about an individual's life," Vella said.

Additionally, CPJ's Kaiser said, holding murderers accountable publicly will push governments to take threats against journalists more seriously.

"A lot of the journalists who have been targeted and killed for their work are people who have a history of threats. Our hope really is that in the future, threats will be taken seriously," she said.