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STL likely to confirm January trial date, Merhi decision up in air
A poster of Hassan Habib Merhi released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)
A poster of Hassan Habib Merhi released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)
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BEIRUT: Judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Monday looked set to confirm mid-January as the start of the long-awaited trial in the 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

The STL is tasked with investigating the Valentine’s Day bombing that killed Hariri and set the stage for the end of Syria’s formal tutelage over Lebanon and a wave of political assassinations targeting anti-Syrian figures.

The Hague-based court has indicted five Hezbollah members in connection with the attack, four of whom are expected to stand trial in absentia in January.

The trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 13, nearly nine years after Hariri’s killing. The trial chamber confirmed it intends to start next month.

“The trial chamber judges reiterated their desire to start trial in January,” STL spokesperson Marten Youssef told The Daily Star after a hearing to prepare for trial.

The trial date may fall on the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, a national holiday in Lebanon, but defense and prosecution lawyers agreed to Jan. 14 as a substitute.

The trial chamber will now have to decide whether to confirm the trial date.

The judges also expressed a desire to have live witnesses testify before the court in the first part of the prosecution’s case, which will deal with the events of Feb 14, 2005, and the immediate aftermath of the bombing, including the identification of victims and footage before, during and right after the attack from nearby CCTV cameras.

The prosecution had said in recent filings that the majority of the witnesses in the first part of trial would present written testimony, but the judges can decide that witnesses must appear in person before the court if defense lawyers wish to cross-examine them.

The second part of the prosecution’s case is expected to deal with telecommunications evidence and call data records, which make up the bulk of its evidence.The third portion will deal with the role of the suspects – Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra – in the assassination.

The prosecution alleges that Badreddine served as the overall controller of the attack, Ayyash coordinated the assassination team, and Oneissi and Sabra prepared and delivered a false claim of responsibility video for the blast.

Hezbollah has refused to hand over the men to the court, and its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said he would cut off the hand of any who tried to arrest them.

At the hearing, the trial chamber also considered whether it could join the case of the fifth Hezbollah suspect, Hasan Merhi, who was indicted this summer, with the main case.

Francois Roux, the head of the Defense Office at the STL, said he was ready to appoint defense lawyers for Merhi if the court decided to try him in absentia.

But he said it would not make sense for his lawyers to sit with members of the public during hearings in the main case, listening to evidence that also concerns their client.

Merhi is also accused of being a conspirator in the Hariri assassination, and evidence presented before the court during trial will touch on his case.

The trial chamber could decide in the coming weeks whether to proceed with a trial in absentia in Merhi’s case, and Roux’s comments hint that defense counsel would be quickly appointed. The prosecution is likely to file for a “joinder” combining the two cases immediately afterward.

That would open the door for Merhi’s defense lawyers to be physically present to hear testimony from inside the courtroom without delaying the start of trial.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 03, 2013, on page 1.
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