BEIRUT: The trial of the alleged assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri appears to be in safe hands, said legal experts who were reassured by the high standards displayed at the opening session of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
The experts stressed that Lebanon, which was rattled by a string of assassinations targeting mainly politicians and figures affiliated with the March 14 coalition following Hariri’s killing, now stood a good chance of putting an end to impunity.
The veteran Lebanon-based lawyers who spoke to The Daily Star praised what they called the judges’ “professionalism,” which they said boosted the tribunal’s credibility.
“What I saw today [Thursday] was an encouraging beginning. The court’s procedural matters are moving on the right track. We are faced with an extraordinary court that is seeking to back its work with credibility,” said Ziyad Baroud, a former interior minister and an attorney at law.
“Lebanon has a very big opportunity to put an end to the impunity, provided that the tribunal follows the trial procedures and the verdict with the highest degree of credibility and the highest international criteria in force,” he said.
Baroud praised former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, for saying he was seeking justice rather than vengeance.
Hariri, who attended the trial in The Hague, the Netherlands, said the Hezbollah suspects were innocent until proven guilty.
“Our presence here today is in itself a proof that our stance since the first moment was, and will continue to be, seeking justice, not revenge – punishment and not vengeance,” Hariri told reporters outside the court.
Hasan Rifai, a former lawmaker and a veteran legal expert, also praised the judges’ professionalism.
“The tribunal’s trial has kicked off and there is no reason to cast doubts over its work,” he said, citing the judges “skilled precision [and] high-level professionalism.”
He said the tribunal also constituted “a moral deterrent to criminals.”
Rifai credited Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, the chief of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch who was assassinated by a car bomb in October 2012, for the STL’s professional work. Rifai said Hasan had provided the tribunal with detailed information about the massive suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, including the bomber, on Feb. 14, 2005.
“What we heard today [Thursday] is the beginning of firm proof, but it does not constitute compelling evidence for a guilty verdict,” Rifai said. “We have to wait for the analysis of the judges and the general prosecution in the first place.”
The STL, being held in The Hague, is trying four Hezbollah suspects – in absentia – accused of involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The STL will resume Friday at 10:30 a.m. The prosecution is expected to use the second day to detail the rest of the evidence that relied on telecommunications data. The analysis of call data records allegedly revealed several networks that tracked Hariri and were involved in the assassination.
Former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, a strong supporter of the STL, also hailed the start of the trials.
“It is the right path we have been waiting for long toward achieving justice. We expect the STL to be very credible. We need the truth to be obvious and undisputable. It seems that this will be the case with the STL,” Najjar told The Daily Star.
Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite St. Joseph, praised the hearing but said that it was too soon to tell what effect it would have.
“The prosecutors have a solid case and have made professional presentations,” Nader told The Daily Star. “It is an historic moment but it does not mean that it could translate peace on the ground in the short run.”
Nader said he had watched the trial on TV and had the impression that, “armed with professionalism and well-documented files, the tribunal would be able to achieve justice and reveal the truth.
“I hope anyone who would challenge the tribunal would do with the same level of professionalism.”
Asked if the STL’s trials could help put an end to the impunity that surrounds those behind a series of car bombings and political assassinations in 2005, Nader said: “The trials will be an instrument to prevent crimes in Lebanon.”
The trial would be “very important for the generations to come, even though we may pay the price for the absence of consensus today on the issue of the tribunal,” he added.
Hezbollah has been skeptical of the STL since it was founded in 2007, dismissing it as an “American-Israeli project” designed to incite sectarian strife in Lebanon. The party has refused to hand over the five Hezbollah members indicted by the tribunal.
Nader said the STL’s trials posed a new tough challenge to Hezbollah, which is already facing political challenges both at home and abroad, including security threats from Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups over its military intervention in Syria.
But, he added, “the international community’s commitment to reach a regional deal involving Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia is sufficient to deter Hezbollah from political escalation in Lebanon over the STL.”
Referring to criticism of the STL by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies, Baroud said the tribunal had to buttress the trial’s procedures by answering skeptics’ reservations.
“The tribunal must provide answers to those who have tried to cast doubts about its work. If the tribunal, with all its credibility, succeeds in providing proof and evidence, it will go a long way toward gaining the credibility of the verdict to be issued,” Baroud said.
In order for the tribunal to dispel doubts about its work, Baroud said, it must provide “a firm answer” on the truth behind Hariri’s assassination and those responsible for this.
“We are done with the phase of secret investigation and have entered a phase of public investigation because the trial is conducted in public and evidence and proof are within the reach of everyone, including the defense team,” he said.
“We have entered a very important stage with regard to informing all the Lebanese about the course of judicial procedures through the public trial,” Baroud added.