BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is not a “sinking ship” and will put on trial the very concept of using assassinations as a political tool in Lebanon, a former top court official said.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Herman von Hebel, the former registrar at the tribunal, discussed his tenure at the STL, cooperation with Lebanon, delays to the start of trial and the tribunal’s role in the country nine years after the Hariri assassination.
The STL was established to try those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others. Hezbollah refuses to hand over the four men indicted by the court, which is preparing to try them in absentia in January, nearly nine years after the attack.
Von Hebel stepped down as registrar of the STL in March after being appointed to the same position at the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity.
His resignation prompted critics to call the STL a sinking ship, citing numerous changes in the court’s top leadership and delays to the start of trial. The current prosecutor, Norman Farrell, replaced former prosecutor Daniel Bellemare.
Von Hebel was the STL’s third registrar, and Judge David Baragwanath, the tribunal’s president, took its reins after the death of its former head, Antonio Cassese.
“The STL is no sinking ship,” he said. “The STL simply has to move on, and has the potential to move on.”
He said that the STL is no different than other tribunals that had faced delays in carrying out their mandate, saying international courts have to balance the need to start trial quickly and deliver justice with protecting the rights of the accused.
“Justice is a very delicate and thorough process, but that also means not a very fast process,” he said. “Speedy justice often is not really justice.”
Von Hebel said the STL should do what it can to speed up the trial.
“The victims of the assassination have the right to know more, to know the case, to find a final solution,” he said. “Anything that the STL can do to speed up, they of course should do.”
Other international courts have been criticized for lengthy trials. The ICC took 10 years to convict its first war criminal, when the court sentenced Thomas Lubanga, a rebel leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to 30 years in prison.
Von Hebel said the STL’s role goes beyond finding those responsible for the Hariri assassination and extends to what he said is the very concept of using assassinations as a method of doing politics in Lebanon.
“This tribunal and this process are also about putting on trial the mere fact that a huge element of Lebanese politics appears to include political assassinations as a method of politics, and that method is on trial,” he said.
“That’s where I think the court has a much bigger impact than only finding out the truth about the person responsible for the assassination of Hariri,” he added. “This is about a much wider perspective.”
The Hariri attack was a precursor to a wave of political assassinations that plunged the country into turmoil and led to the tribunal’s creation.
Von Hebel said the STL has had a deterrent effect on political violence in Lebanon, adding that at least some of the recent violence can probably be attributed to rising regional tensions.
No political assassinations occurred in Lebanon since 2009 when the court opened, until the killing of former intelligence chief Wissam al-Hasan in October last year.
Von Hebel said that local efforts in Lebanon to undermine the credibility of the tribunal have not been successful.
He said such intense criticism of international courts is common, since they intervene in highly sensitive cases when the state is unable or unwilling to investigate serious crimes.
Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government, led a campaign to undermine the tribunal within Lebanon once news was leaked that the STL intended to indict Hezbollah operatives in connection with the Hariri attack.
But von Hebel said that in his experience, Lebanon was eager to cooperate with the STL.
Still, a pall covers those efforts, since Lebanon has failed to arrest the four accused.
But he said it is “too simple” to assume a lack of cooperation because the men had not yet been detained.
“No, there is cooperation, there are a lot of efforts taking place, at least when I was still around at the STL, and I assume that hasn’t changed,” he said. “But it doesn’t automatically lead to concrete results.”
He pointed to the examples of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals, where many years passed before individuals like Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, who were accused by these courts, were arrested, noting that no international tribunal has a police force that can coerce states into cooperating.
Von Hebel said there had been many factors that contributed in the long wait for the Hariri trial, including changes in the top leadership in the prosecution, the transition from the U.N. investigation committee to the tribunal, which was only established in 2009, the “delicate” political situation in Lebanon and other developments in the country that can impede the progress of the investigation.
He also broached the subject of trials in absentia, allowed under the rules of the Lebanon tribunal but not for the war crimes trials at the ICC. The STL trial will be the first international trial in absentia since the Nuremberg tribunal that tried Nazi war criminals.
He said the preference is always for the suspect to be present in trial to instruct defense counsel and to be confronted with evidence, but he said that as long as fair trial is ensured, the approach has advantages at the STL.
“Justice can happen and the facts can be established, and the victim can at the end of the day find out about the person responsible for the commission of the crime,” he said.
When asked to respond to criticism that the STL has a narrow and selective mandate, von Hebel said it was not the job of the court to challenge the political decisions that brought it into existence, but to ensure that trial adheres to the highest standards of international justice.
“Obviously the Security Council is a political body, there is no getting around that,” he said. “The most important thing, however, is that once the political body has spoken, then the institution that has been established should function according to legal standards of a very high nature.”
For instance, it is not for the STL to question whether its mandate should be expanded to include other crimes beyond those under its jurisdiction, he said.