BEIRUT: The Hariri assassination inched closer to trial Monday as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announced the case’s transfer to its trial chamber, the culmination of nearly nine years of investigative work into the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that claimed the life of Lebanon’s former premier and 21 others and plunged the country into turmoil.
“The fact that we are now in the trial phase marks a significant moment for the Lebanese people and the STL staff who want to see this case progress expeditiously while respecting the right of the accused,” court spokesman Marten Youssef told The Daily Star.
The transfer of the case file represents a milestone for the court and the international community that backs it. It means that preparations are in their final stages, paving the way for the first international trial for a crime of terrorism.
It will also be the first time a trial in absentia is held by an international court since the Nazi war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg at the end of the World War II.
The STL’s prosecutor has accused Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, all members of Hezbollah, of complicity in Hariri’s killing. A separate indictment was published this month for Hassan Merhi, another party operative.
Hezbollah denies it had any role to play in Hariri’s killing and denounces the court as part of an American-Israeli plot to undermine the party.
The court said pretrial judge Daniel Fransen transferred the entire Ayyash et al. case file to the trial chamber.
The file handed to the trial chamber included all the evidence and other documents related to the case and represented the result of years of investigative work by international commissioners and detectives into Hariri’s murder.
It also included all filings by the prosecution, defense and lawyers of the victims, all evidence received by the pretrial judge, transcripts of hearings and minutes of meetings, correspondence with other entities such as the Lebanese government and all orders and decisions made by Judge Fransen.
This means that the trial chamber’s judges will be given electronic access to all the relevant documents.
Part of the case file is also a comprehensive report that lays out the arguments by all sides in the case and the evidence they will use to support it, as well as recommendations for the witnesses who will be called by the prosecution and the victims’ lawyers.
The court said that a public version of Judge Fransen’s report would be published on its website “in due course.”
The trial chamber judges will now “continue to prepare for the start of trial,” the court said in a statement.
Youssef said the transfer of the case file, which included thousands of pages of evidence, was intended to help the judges “in preparation for an efficient and expeditious trial.”
Proceedings are scheduled to begin on Jan. 13, 2014, nearly nine years after the Valentine’s Day bombing in Downtown Beirut that marked the beginning of a series of political assassinations in Lebanon and the formal end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.
It will also happen two-and-a-half years after the indictment in the case was first confirmed, and the tribunal issued arrest warrants naming Badreddine, Ayyash, Oneissi and Sabra.
The trial chamber had decided in November last year to try the four men in their absence, a procedure that is permitted under Lebanese law.
“The four accused remain at large, but the Lebanese authorities have an ongoing obligation to search for, arrest and transfer the accused to STL custody,” the court said in its statement.
The trial chamber will now have to decide whether to uphold the January trial date. The court has already delayed trial once – it was originally scheduled for March this year.
The trial chamber will hold a public hearing Tuesday to discuss preparations measures.
The prosecution is expected to outline its strategy and the witnesses and evidence it plans to use in trial, whereas the defense is expected to raise allegations that Lebanon is systematically failing to assist their investigations.
The trial chamber’s previous president, Judge Robert Roth, resigned in September, raising questions over the court’s readiness. An alternate judge, Janet Nosworthy of Jamaica, was appointed to the chamber.
A replacement for Judge Roth has yet to be appointed.
“The recruitment of an alternate judge to the trial chamber is a matter for the United Nations Secretary General,” Youssef said. “We will announce it once an appointment has been made and the candidate accepts.”