BEIRUT: The president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon officially joined the case of Hassan Merhi to the trial of the four alleged Hezbollah supporters accused of plotting and executing the massive explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri almost exactly nine years ago.
The move will likely result in the tribunal’s adjournment for at least several weeks while Merhi’s defense team is brought up to speed.
“The two indictments refer to the same case. Both indictments allege a conspiracy related to the explosion in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005,” Judge David Re, president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s trial chamber, said after hearing several hours of arguments from both the prosecution and Merhi’s defense team.
“The pretrial briefs already filed with the prosecutor are very similar and the overwhelming majority of the witnesses on the prosecutions witness list and exhibit list are common to both cases,” he continued.
“In these circumstances, the interests of justice must favor joining the two cases. The trial chamber has therefore decided that the two cases should be joined and tried on the same indictment.”
Re’s decision came following submissions from the court registrar who claimed that conducting a separate trial for Merhi would cost the tribunal “considerable resources.”
Registrar Daryl Mundis estimated it would cost between “5 [million] to 10 million euros to accommodate a second trial.”
Merhi’s defense team never formally opposed the joinder but has repeatedly insisted that it needs adequate time and resources to ensure its client’s rights are upheld.
While the four Hezbollah suspects initially implicated in the assassination were indicted in 2011, Merhi’s indictment was only confirmed by a pretrial judge at the tribunal last July.
The prosecution alleges Merhi, along with the other suspects, coordinated “the preparations for and preparation of the terrorist attack” that killed Hariri and 21 others.
Merhi’s defense team, appointed less than two months ago, has argued that unlike the lawyers for the four initial suspects, it has not had enough time to properly review all the documents related to the case.
“You have this high speed train which is going down a track, and you have a little ... humdrum truck on a different set of tracks,” said Dorothee le Fraper du Hellen, a member of Merhi’s defense.
“You’re asking that humdrum wagon to hook up with that high speed train. We have to pull out all the stops to make sure we’re up to speed,” she told the court. “Merhi’s defense team needs here and now to have the requisite time and facilities to properly ready its defense.”
Merhi’s head defense lawyer, Mohammad Aouini, stressed that combining the cases after the trial had begun could potentially impinge on his client’s legal rights: “One of his [Merhi’s] fundamental rights that seems to be jeopardized by the possibility of a tardy joinder is the right to be tried in the same conditions of fairness in a joint trial as if he were to be tried separately.”
At the heart of the issue is the so-called pretrial phase.
For the first four suspects, this phase lasted two-and-a-half years following their indictment. Merhi’s case will have a much shorter pretrial phase, by contrast.
“We haven’t yet addressed any problems coming from investigations or looked at potential witnesses or gathered sensitive evidence. This falls under the purview of the pretrial judge,” le Fraper du Hellen told the court.
The hearing will resume Wednesday when Re will hear submissions related to the time needed for the pretrial phase and for Merhi’s defense to adequately prepare its case.