BEIRUT: Nine years after a massive car bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and plunged Lebanon into its worst political turmoil since the Civil War, the trial of the men accused of orchestrating the attack appears within reach. In July, the pretrial judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Fransen, set Jan. 13, 2014, as the tentative date for the start of trial.
“I think it’s a huge milestone for Lebanon, for international justice and for justice in the Arab world,” Marten Youssef, the court’s spokesman, told The Daily Star at the time.
The Hariri case will be the first international trial for a crime of terrorism. The STL is the first tribunal to try a case in absentia since the Nuremberg tribunals that dealt with Nazi war crimes.
This is the second temporary date set by the STL, which already missed its first deadline of March 2013.
Many steps remain to be taken before the trial starts, and the date may yet change again if new developments in the case occur, such the arrest of one of the men wanted by the court.
The nine-year delay also poses questions over whether the tribunal, established to fight the impunity surrounding political assassinations, can have an impact on Lebanon. Wissam al-Hasan, the director of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, was assassinated last year in a car bomb reminiscent of the political violence in the middle of the last decade.
The STL was created in 2009 to bring to trial those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005 attack on Hariri. Four members of Hezbollah were indicted by the STL in connection with the Beirut bombing, which claimed the lives of 23 people including the former premier.
Judge Fransen now has to transfer the entire case file – a dossier containing all the evidence and material that will be showcased in trial and all the work that has been done so far to prepare the case, to the STL’s trial chamber.
The trial chamber will then choose a final trial date, though it will likely remain in the same ballpark as the pre-trial judge’s proposed date. The case file itself is likely to be part public and part confidential.
A portion of the case file will be the defense’s updated “pretrial brief,” a document that has to be submitted by the lawyers of the four men and that lays out a summary of their case.
Defense counsel have yet to offer a substantive outline of their theory of what happened. Their submissions, expected later this month, will be informed by months of investigations and analysis of the evidence that will be brought to trial.
Previous public filings offer hints. One request to the Lebanese authorities by counsel for Assad Sabra, one of the four accused, asked for information on terrorist groups operating in Lebanese territory.
Judge Fransen is required to deliver the case to the chamber’s five judges, two of whom are Lebanese, at least six weeks before trial, but he intends to do so by early October.
Yet even three months may seem inadequate for a case that contains thousands of documents and a massive amount of specialized communications evidence as well as witness testimony.
Youssef said the chamber had already dealt with a number of issues related to the case and would therefore not be starting from scratch.
The trial chamber has already ruled on the legality of the STL itself, on challenges to the indictment, and on holding trials in absentia.
But the chamber has yet to deal with a number of other issues, including whether the prosecution can bring evidence related to the so-called “connected cases” in the Hariri trial.
The STL has jurisdiction over a number of other attacks on Lebanese political figures that may be linked to Hariri’s assassination.
The prosecution indicated in its pretrial brief that Mustafa Badreddine, a leading figure in Hezbollah and in the cell that allegedly orchestrated Hariri’s killing, was involved in other attacks in Kuwait and the related cases, showing a “consistent pattern of conduct” that supports the accusations against him.
The defense wants the claims stricken, since Badreddine has not been charged in the other attacks.
Other factors may also delay the start of trial. These include the arrest of one of the accused, the prosecutor submitting new indictments by adding new suspects, or indictments being submitted in the connected cases.
The prosecutor could then ask for an “enjoinder,” combining the trial of new suspects or cases with the Hariri assassination case.
The start of a trial in early 2014 also raises the prospect of a renewed debate on the tribunal’s mandate, which is set to expire in February 2015.
The STL is unlikely to finish trial and deal with appeals to its verdicts in just one year, and it faces pressure from donors to show progress.
But the tribunal insists that it pays no consideration to political pressure.
“Naturally we are sensitive to their desire for the trial to start,” Youssef said. “That being said, the pretrial judge does not take into account any considerations other than those of the parties involved in setting a tentative trial date.”
He said the tribunal’s priority was to guarantee a fair trial.
“We’re not going to rush through the case just for the sake of completing trial,” he said. “The utmost attention has to be given to the accused receiving a fair trial.”
Youssef said that taking nine years to begin trial “is of course not something that we’re proud of.”
But, he said, the tribunal’s work should not be dismissed.
“It’s unfortunate that it has been nine years, but the alternative is to simply throw our hands up in the air,” Youssef said. “Absolutely not. We have to carry on with our mandate.”
The approach of a trial also highlights Lebanon’s failure to pay its share of the STL’s budget, since the tribunal is likely to incur logistical costs because of trial activity. Lebanon’s caretaker government is unable to pay dues for 2013 of roughly $39 million.
The STL maintains that it is confident Lebanon will pay, despite the political deadlock.
“In the past, Lebanon has always honored such obligation and the Tribunal has received no indication that intends to act otherwise in 2013,” Youssef said.