BEIRUT: Lawyers for a Hezbollah member, accused of complicity in the 2005 attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, asked for a suspension of trial proceedings over what they said was Lebanon’s “systematic failure” to cooperate with the defense. Their request came as the court’s spokesman expressed confidence that Lebanon’s contribution to the annual budget of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was only a matter of time and would occur before the end of the year.
“The tribunal is aware that receipt of the payment is just a matter of time,” STL spokesperson Marten Youssef told The Daily Star. “The Lebanese authorities have a legal obligation to contribute to the budget of the STL similar to the obligation to pay their dues to other international organizations, and they have never defaulted on those payments.”
“The Tribunal is therefore convinced that caretaker Prime Minister [Najib] Mikati will honor Lebanon’s legal obligations – as done already twice in the past – and ensure the disbursement of the STL funding before the end of the year,” he added.
The STL statement signaled a renewed confidence by the court, which is scheduled to begin trial in January, in Lebanon’s commitment despite the acrimonious rhetoric in the country surrounding the work of the tribunal, which has indicted five Hezbollah members in connection with the Hariri assassination.
It also signaled that the controversy over the funding may be approaching a resolution, despite concerns that the caretaker government cannot legally carry out a measure as controversial as the funding of the STL.
Hezbollah is staunchly opposed to the court, condemning it as an Israeli-American tool, and says it should not be funded.
The news comes as defense counsel for Assad Sabra, one of the men accused of orchestrating the alleged false claim of responsibility after the Feb. 14, 2005, attack in Beirut, asked pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen to suspend trial proceedings.
“Unless the tribunal is able to secure full, diligent and timely compliance with Lebanon’s duty to cooperate, a stay of proceedings would be necessary and justified to ensure the tribunal’s guarantee of fundamental rights to an accused and to force the Lebanese authorities to fully comply with their legal obligations,” defense lawyers David Young and Guenael Mettraux said in their filing, which was published Friday on the court’s website.
They detailed “multiple but fruitless efforts” to secure Lebanon’s cooperation in providing material that is essential to defense preparations for trial. They also said that no other countries or international organizations provided information sought by the defense, adding that their requests were “routinely ignored, or unequivocally rejected.”
Young and Mettraux outlined several requests made to the Lebanese government, including information regarding Sabra’s known whereabouts, telecommunications data including details on cell towers and cell coverage, call data records, jammers and SMS records, information on terrorist groups operating in Lebanon and other potential perpetrators of the Hariri attack, and information on Sabra’s friends and relatives.
The prosecution’s case, detailed in its public indictments, appears to hinge on telecommunications evidence that allegedly links the suspects to the bombing. The defense argued that the information is crucial to challenging the prosecution’s case and to testing the reliability of its evidence.
The lawyers offered a tantalizing hint that they say shows the prosecution’s case is unreliable. Lebanese investigators had apparently linked the mobile phone allegedly belonging to Sabra to another Lebanese individual before him, a detail that was only disclosed to the defense in March of this year.
Sabra’s phone is part of the “purple network” which the STL prosecutor says disseminated a false claim of responsibility for the Hariri attack, which included a taped confession of a man named Abu Adass, whose whereabouts are unknown.
The lawyers said the lack of cooperation fatally impedes the investigation.
“The Hariri explosion occurred over eight years ago and was initially investigated by the Lebanese authorities,” they said in the filing. “No other state therefore has access to the information sought by the defense.”
They also hinted that security challenges prevent the defense from carrying out the investigation, saying the team is unable to “conduct its own follow-up ground investigations in a safe and secure environment.”
The lawyers said that Lebanon aided the prosecution but is refusing to assist the defense, showing a double standard, and that Lebanon’s failure to cooperate means that no fair trial is possible.
If the defense request is granted, the Tribunal would again face the prospect of delaying the start of trial, frustrating its supporters.
Youssef said that Lebanon’s cooperation with the court spans all of its arms, including the defense and prosecution. It also includes, for instance, financing the court, which has not happened yet this year, and providing security to tribunal facilities and officials, which is continuing.
“The fact that the defense needs adequate time and material to prepare for trial is something that is paramount for a fair trial,” Youssef said. “So this is not something that we are taking lightly as an institution.”
Lebanon’s justice minister, Shakib Qortbawi, has previously defended the country’s judiciary from allegations of lack of cooperation by the defense.
At the time, Qortbawi said that defense lawyers were seeking information that was already in the custody of the tribunal, or were asking for legal opinions that Lebanon was not obliged to provide.