The in absentia trial of the four accused in the 2005 attack on the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others, opened before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Thursday. The four – Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, are alleged Hezbollah associates and remain at large. They are accused in their absence of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, murder and attempted murder. The trial of a fifth suspect, Habib Merhi, may be joined to this trial at a later date. The trial is the first to deal with charges of terrorism and the first in absentia trial since Nuremburg.
GCC’s Geraldine Coughlan in The Hague talks to BBC World Service Newshour (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01pjxgg).
What’s been happening in court?
Judge David Re made it clear that all necessary steps are being taken to bring the four accused to court – remark that was well received by Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad and other family members who are here for the trial. We heard an analysis of the mobile phone networks the suspects allegedly used as part of high-grade military material, including explosives, in the surveillance and planning of the attack. This was a “cruel, cruel act”, designed to cause maximum panic, said Prosecutor Norman Farrell, as he showed photos of the explosion scene, which he described as a “man-made hell”.
Can you explain how it’s possible to try these suspects in absentia?
This is unprecedented, being the first in absentia trial before a Special UN-backed court. On this unique occasion, the judge said the court would proceed as if the defendants were present and although no pleas have been entered, they would be presumed to have pleaded not guilty and it would be prosecution’s task to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.
Who is representing the defendants? How can they do their jobs without access to the defendants?
The STL is unique amongst international courts in having its own Defence Office, with independent lawyers assigned to represent and exercise the rights of the absent accused, which is essential to a fair trial. After the prosecution’s overview of this complex case, the defence is set to take the floor next week. There will also be statements from legal representatives of victims participating in the proceedings. The benefit is, that this trial, albeit in absentia, will allow the Lebanese people to see the evidence being presented and challenged, and the witnesses testifying and being cross-examined in public.
How long is it expected to take?
With 500 witness statements and hundreds of hours of prosecution and defence submissions, this will be a protracted affair, lasting months and possibly years. In absentia proceedings are problematic at best – but so is Lebanon, as well as Hezbollah’s refusal to really look for the suspects. The key issue now is whether this STL trial can spur the local judiciary to start investigating all the other political crimes that took place in Lebanon. but so is Lebanon, as well as Hezbollah’s refusal to really look for the suspects. The key issue now is whether this STL trial can spur the local judiciary to start investigating all the other political crimes that took place in Lebanon.
By Elli Goetz
Copyright GCC Law and Media