BEIRUT: Emile Aoun has a clear idea of the purpose of his job as a defense lawyer before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. “Part of my role as a defense counsel is to avoid this being a show trial,” he told The Daily Star.
Aoun, along with veteran defense lawyer Eugene O’Sullivan, is tasked with defending Salim Jamil Ayyash, who is accused of coordinating the assassination team that physically carried out the Feb. 14 , 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others, plunging Lebanon into political turmoil.
The tribunal is preparing to try Ayyash, along with three other alleged Hezbollah operatives, in absentia. Hezbollah has refused to hand over the men to the tribunal, which it accuses of being an American-Zionist plot to undermine the resistance.
Proceedings are set to begin in January, in what will be the first international trial in absentia since the Nuremberg tribunal which prosecuted Nazi war criminals in the 1940s.
“I know that the STL is a very divisive issue among many Lebanese, that’s clear,” said Beirut-born Aoun. “But to me it’s not so much about politics; this is simply about the rights of the accused and a fair trial in their absence.”
“So what are we going to do to make this the best situation for Lebanon and the Lebanese people?”
Aoun said the question of whether Lebanon needed an international tribunal was irrelevant since the court’s existence was a fact, making it pointless to boycott it. Instead, he said, the court should be held to the task of holding a fair trial for the men accused of killing Hariri.
“As an Arab and Lebanese lawyer I have two options: One is I could boycott it and sit on the sidelines and criticize all of it,” he said. “The consequences of this are that I would miss an incredible opportunity to impact and help improve international justice, even if it’s in a very small way.”
“Or I could participate in it and contribute to the change within it,” he added. “I choose the latter.”
Aoun said he believed in international justice, but that it was like a “baby” that had yet to achieve its potential, a common metaphor among international lawyers and judges. He prefers a “wait-and-see” approach before passing a verdict on the STL’s contribution to Lebanese society.
But he says the flaw in international justice is that it is “selective, expensive and slow.”
The STL has been criticized for the narrowness of its mandate, which covers a limited number of attacks in 2004 and 2005, and for the burden it places on the annual Lebanese budget. If trial begins as scheduled early next year, it will be taking place nearly nine years after the Hariri assassination.
For international justice to have a role in Arab societies, Aoun said, it must apply equally to global powers.
“International justice must not be selective again and again, and fighting impunity must have its ground everywhere in the world, not only in Africa or the Middle East,” he said.
His argument echoes one he made before the STL’s trial chamber, when defense counsel argued against the legality of the tribunal’s establishment and legitimacy.
In his presentation before the trial chamber in June 2012, Aoun argued that the STL’s selectivity constituted a “coup” against Lebanese justice.
“We are prosecuting one party, and the STL has been considered as a tool to defeat a certain political party that has fought for several years the Israeli occupation and the United States hegemony,” he said at the time.
Even now, Aoun still argues that the STL’s selectivity is due to the international community ignoring the atrocities of the country’s 15-year Civil War and Israeli violations in 2006.
His performance before the court last year drew attention for two reasons. First, he pleaded in Arabic, something previously virtually unheard in international tribunals. Second, he brought up human rights violations against Palestinians at a time when debate was raging over their quest for statehood and the prospect of them pursuing legal action against Israel in the International Criminal Court loomed large.
“For more than 60 years human rights are violated on a daily basis in Palestine and the international community does not care about it,” he said at the time. “Years go by and double standards are implemented under what we are calling international justice.”
Today, he still speaks of that moment as one of his proudest professional achievements.
But many challenges remain, one of which, said Aoun, was the lack of contact with his client.
“The absence of the client means that you have no instructions given by him or her, and this makes the job more difficult because the counsel needs to come back to the client to ask him or her about the case and its evidence,” he said. “Without the client, the counsel has practically to test every element in the prosecution’s case.”
Aoun’s interest in international justice began early in the last decade, as he closely followed the drafting of the Rome Statute that established the ICC.
In October of 2005, at a legal conference, he presented a paper on the possibility of Lebanon’s accession to the ICC, and followed that with a number of legal articles on the creation of an international tribunal for Lebanon.
Aoun has a bachelor’s degree in law from the St. Joseph University, as well as a bachelor’s degrees in administrative and political sciences and in history. He holds one master’s in public and one in private law.
He applied to the list of defense counsel at the STL and was admitted shortly after the tribunal’s establishment in 2009. In February 2012, he was assigned to represent Salim Ayyash by the STL’s head of Defense Office, Francois Roux. Aoun is also on the list of counsel at the ICC, and was assigned in May to represent a client in the war crimes court.
Yet he believes justice for Lebanon will be slow in coming. Asked when he expected trial at the STL to conclude, he quipped that the two slowest forms of justice are “God’s justice and international justice.”