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STL prosecutor seeks to try Merhi with other Hezbollah suspects
File - Status Conference in the Ayyash et al. case, in the Hague, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)
File - Status Conference in the Ayyash et al. case, in the Hague, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)
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BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s prosecutor has asked that five Hezbollah members accused of complicity in the Hariri assassination be tried together, in a move the court said would likely not delay the start of trial next month.

“All of the accused are alleged co-perpetrators of the same conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, which resulted in the same attack, against the same persons, in the same area, in the same period of time,” the prosecution said in a filing on the STL website. “Merhi already forms an integral part of the ... indictment.”

The STL was set up to try those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, attack in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and claimed 21 other victims, plunging Lebanon into a period of political turbulence and ending Syria’s formal tutelage over the country.

Four Hezbollah members – Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra – were indicted in connection with the attack. A fifth suspect, Hasan Merhi, was indicted in July this year as another member in the conspiracy to kill Hariri.

The party has refused to hand over the men, accusing the court of being an American-Israeli ploy to undermine the resistance. Hezbollah accuses Israel of being behind the assassination.

Trial for the first four accused is supposed to begin in absentia on Jan. 16, and until now the Merhi case was separate. But the prosecutor said the cases should be tried together because the evidence used in both cases is “virtually identical” and because Merhi’s deep involvement is already apparent in the main indictment.

Merhi is accused of coordinating the preparation of a false claim of responsibility for the Hariri assassination with Badreddine. He also allegedly helped Oneissi and Sabra in recruiting Abu Adass, a man who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the attack aired on Al-Jazeera, and arranged the broadcast.

The prosecution claims that the suicide bomber who carried out the Hariri attack was not Abu Adass, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Merhi is also one of only three users of the “green network” – telephones allegedly used by the leaders of the assassination squad that were also used by Badreddine and Ayyash.

Badreddine himself is accused of being the overall controller of the attack, while Ayyash coordinated the assassination team that carried it out.

The prosecution is also worried about the safety of witnesses whose identities will become known during the Hariri trial.

“Separate trials may result in the loss of valuable and perhaps critical witnesses for the subsequent Merhi case,” the prosecution’s lawyers said.

Leaks of supposed witness lists in the case have occurred in the past, prompting fears of reprisals against individuals who testify before the tribunal.

The prosecution also said that one trial would minimize the trauma and hardship for both witnesses and victims taking part in trial.

STL spokesman Marten Youssef said the request to join the case would probably not affect the January trial date.

“It will likely not delay the start of trial,” he told The Daily Star.

The trial chamber still has to decide whether to try Merhi in absentia. After that, defense lawyers will be appointed and the prosecution can begin disclosing evidence to them.

Defense lawyers for Merhi can then participate in the first round of hearings in the trial as they catch up to the case and conduct their own investigations.

The prosecution said it intends to rely on 8,654 pieces of evidence and around 400 witnesses throughout the trial. It said it would need between 329 and 687 hours of courtroom time to finish questioning the witnesses.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2013, on page 3.
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