BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s top administrator met Thursday with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati amid speculation over the court’s funding and questions about preparations for trial.
Lebanon owes nearly $38 million to the Hague-based court as part of its annual 49 percent contribution to the budget. It is months overdue.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Feb 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The court indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011. It indicted Hasan Merhi, a fifth Hezbollah suspect, earlier this month.
Merhi is accused of being a part of the network that orchestrated an alleged false claim of responsibility for the Hariri assassination.
The court announced it would hold a hearing Tuesday on trial preparation. It is also engaged in a public advertising effort before it can rule whether Merhi, who has not been arrested, is to be tried in absentia.
Sources close to Mikati said that STL Registrar Daryl Mundis did not press the issue of the funding at his latest meeting in the Grand Serail, describing the visit as “routine.”
They speculated that the STL may have enough funding to continue its work, adding that no deadline had been set by Mundis during his meeting. They said the court showed an understanding of Lebanon’s political and security situation.
Lebanon has been under a caretaker government since March, with no prospect of a deal to resolve the Cabinet deadlock. Some question whether the government can constitutionally pass a measure as controversial as the STL funding under a caretaker Cabinet.
“Our dialogue with the Lebanese government continues, and we are still of the belief that the contribution is a matter of time,” STL spokesperson Marten Youssef told The Daily Star when asked if there had been any progress in the funding discussion.
The sources said that the form and timing of the funding of the STL remains under consideration by Mikati and President Michel Sleiman, adding that Mikati was unlikely to call for a Cabinet session to pass the measure.
Diplomatic efforts had intensified recently to press the issue of the STL funding. At a meeting of donor states contributing to Lebanon’s Syrian refugee aid efforts, envoys raised the issue with President Sleiman.
Sleiman stressed Lebanon’s commitment to its international obligations and said the issue would be resolved soon in accordance with the nation’s constitutional processes, according to a source who attended the meeting.
Mundis himself raised the funding issue at a meeting last month with Lebanese officials including Mikati.
Meanwhile, the court announced that it would hold a hearing next week on trial preparation.
The Tuesday session will feature an outline of the prosecution’s strategy – the type of witnesses they intend to call and the evidence they will present. These are likely to include experts in telecommunications and forensics.
The former group is particularly crucial for the prosecution’s case, which rests largely on telecommunications evidence and co-location to tie phones used in the surveillance of Hariri before his assassination.
In a separate filing this week, the prosecution said it would need a staggering 687.5 hours to present its case.
The defense is expected to raise the issue of what it says is a systematic failure by Lebanon to cooperate with the court.
But the defense’s arguments appear unlikely to gather much traction with the court, according to a source familiar with its work.
Lebanese officials have responded to these allegations in the past by saying the defense was asking them for legal analysis and subjective legal opinions – a task that Lebanese officials are not required to do under the agreement with the tribunal.
Merhi’s recent indictment also poses challenges to trial preparation because of his alleged role as part of the network, meaning that he would be brought up repeatedly in the main case.
Defense lawyers have already asked for access to any confidential documents related to Merhi’s alleged role in the Hariri assassination.
“Merhi is not simply a person alleged to have a tangential connection to events but is actually alleged to be a co-conspirator with ... Ayyash, Badreddine, Oneissi and Sabra,” the defense said in a filing this week, naming the four other suspects. “Any factual information relevant to Mr. Merhi, inevitably affects and involves the other four accused, directly and intimately.”
The source said the Defense Office might seek to appoint counsel for Merhi ahead of the decision to try him in absentia, to speed up proceedings.
But tribunal rules specify that defense lawyers can only be appointed after a decision to try him in absentia is made by the trial chamber.
The source said that such a decision is likely to come before the start of trial in January.
While opening statements in the trial can proceed, the prosecution will probably seek to join the two cases early next year.
Youssef declined to speculate on the possibility of joining the cases.
“It’s up to the prosecutor if and when to submit a request to the judges to join both cases,” he said. – additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh