BEIRUT: Defense lawyers for Assad Sabra, a member of Hezbollah allegedly involved in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, have complained that Lebanon is withholding crucial information that could exonerate their client, a step that could lead to Lebanon’s referral to the U.N. Security Council.
“The failure of the Lebanese government to genuinely cooperate and to assist the defense ... is gravely undermining the defense’s ability to prepare,” lawyers David Young and Guénaël Mettraux said in a filing to the trial chamber published on the court’s website this week.
“This is entirely inadequate and incapable of guaranteeing a fair and informed search for the truth.”
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is tasked with investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into political turmoil.
The prosecution has accused five members of Hezbollah of complicity in the attack. The main trial in the case began in absentia in January.
Defense lawyers say Lebanon has not responded to seven requests for information that could be crucial to exonerating Sabra, one of the five suspects identified by the court.
Sabra is accused of helping to orchestrate a false claim of responsibility for the Hariri attack that aired on Al-Jazeera hours after the bombing, in which a man called Ahmad Abu Adass took credit for the attack on behalf of a group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.
The prosecution says the group is fictitious and the claim was made to mislead investigators. It says Abu Adass, who later disappeared, was not behind the attack, and that he was likely killed by his abductors.
Prosecutors are relying on reams of telecommunications data to identify networks of telephones that allegedly tracked and killed Hariri.
One of the telephones on the purple network, which is allegedly involved in the false claim of responsibility, has been tied to Assad Hassan Sabra, a 38-year-old resident of south Beirut and a member of Hezbollah. His telephone is denoted by the tag “Purple 018” in tribunal records.
But an independent ISF investigation has identified another individual as the phone’s user, possibly undermining the core of the prosecution’s case against Sabra, according to defense lawyers.
Confirming such a finding could cast fresh doubts on the rest of the prosecution’s case tying other phones on the network to members of Hezbollah.
The ISF has not provided crucial details about its investigation to defense lawyers, offering blanket responses claiming that all relevant information has been passed on to the court already.
The lawyers have also asked for telecommunications data that is held by Lebanese companies, specifically touch and Alfa.
Defense lawyers said in their submissions that the telecommunications data was crucial to identifying the roles and responsibilities of the individuals whose phones were identified as part of the networks that planned Hariri’s assassination.
Alfa failed to provide telecommunications data sought by the defense.
The rules of the tribunal allow the court’s judges to declare Lebanon “non-compliant” if the authorities fail to respond to a court order within 30 days. That deadline has already passed in the case of the defense requests.
The tribunal’s president can then try to compel Lebanon to accept the court’s demands. If that fails, the STL’s president should then refer Lebanon to the Security Council for failing to comply with its international obligations.
It is unclear whether the court would ever take such a drastic step as referring Lebanon to the Security Council. Such a decision could irreparably damage the court’s relations with the Lebanese government, which the STL maintains has cooperated greatly with it despite its failure to arrest the suspects.
The Security Council may also decide not to penalize Lebanon, undermining the court’s authority.
The defense’s lawyers have complained for months over Lebanon’s failure to help them make their case defending the Hezbollah suspects named in the indictment.
Prosecutors have for years enjoyed the cooperation of security services such as the Internal Security Forces, traditionally close to the March 14 coalition, which demanded the investigation into Hariri’s killing. ISF officers linked to the investigation, such as late terrorism investigator Capt. Wissam Eid, have themselves been targets of assassination.
The defense argues that the Lebanese authorities have made it difficult to hold a fair trial because of their failure to cooperate with the defense’s investigations.
Lebanon’s lack of cooperation was “indicative of Lebanon’s reluctance to assist the defense,” the lawyers said, adding that it has caused “significant prejudice” to the defense.
They also claimed the ISF’s failure to assist their work “indicates an apparent will on behalf of the Lebanese authorities to shirk its statutory obligation to cooperate with the defense.”