BEIRUT: The joint trial of five members of Hezbollah accused of taking part in the Hariri assassination will be postponed until at least the middle of May, the court announced Wednesday.
The move is intended to allow lawyers of the fifth suspect, who were only appointed in December, time to prepare their case and will allow a swifter conclusion of trial in the long run, judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said in a decision published on the court’s website.
They ordered that the case be adjourned until mid-May “at least.”
“In their ruling, the judges ordered the adjournment of the trial sessions until at least early to mid-May to allow defense counsel for Hassan Habib Merhi adequate time to prepare for trial and to conduct their own investigations,” the STL said in a statement.
The court indicted Merhi in July last year, the fifth member of Hezbollah to be accused in connection with the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and plunged the country into political turmoil.
Merhi is accused of being a leading member of the assassination team that ordered Hariri’s killing and of helping orchestrate an alleged false claim of responsibility for the attack.
Four other members of the party were indicted in 2011, and their trial in absentia began last month at the STL’s headquarters in Leidschendam, a suburb of The Hague.
The delay could dent the court’s momentum less than two months after it opened trial proceedings. But its judges say the adjournment is a temporary measure that will ensure the STL concludes its work in a timely manner.
At the heart of the postponement is the inexplicable delay by the prosecution, which dithered in formally accusing Merhi of involvement in the assassination.
The court’s former Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare tried to indict Merhi as early as February 2012 but his attempt was rejected due to a technicality. The prosecution then tried to question Merhi as a suspect in the case.
Court records show that Lebanese investigators coordinated with Hezbollah in an attempt to interview Merhi as a suspect in June 2012, but he was not present at his apartment in Burj al-Barajneh.
The prosecutor submitted an indictment against him in October that year, then another in June 2013. The latter was confirmed by Pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen in July.
After efforts to arrest Merhi failed, the indictment was made public in October.
It is not clear why it took the prosecution so long to indict Merhi – nearly a year-and-a-half after they supposedly had gathered enough evidence to try and accuse him of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hariri.
The prosecutor only asked to join Merhi’s case to that of the first four suspects less than a month before the start of trial. Trial judges ordered the joining of the two cases earlier this month.
The judges argue that the best way to ensure a speedy trial is to join the two cases. Both the evidence that will be presented in court and the witnesses are “virtually identical.”
A separate, simultaneous trial would also be prohibitively expensive, likely costing between 5 and 10 million euros, while a second trial after the first case is finished would extend the lifespan of the tribunal far beyond the vision of its creators.
A joint trial would also better protect the safety of witnesses and victims taking part in the trial, the court argued.
The trial chamber says that Merhi’s lawyers will not need as much time to prepare their case as the other defense counsel.
The prosecution has already provided Merhi’s lawyers with the evidence that will be used in trial, and the lawyers can also benefit from the results of investigations by the other teams.
The court has so far listened to 15 prosecution witnesses, all of them relatives of victims of the attack or forensic experts who dealt with the immediate aftermath of the blast.
The prosecution intends to call a total of 540 witnesses, including 137 experts, and thousands of “exhibits” or individual pieces of evidence.
Merhi’s lawyers suggested that they might need as long as 10 months to prepare the case for trial.
But the trial chamber appeared to reject this notion, indicating that it is committed to an “expeditious” hearing and hinted that it could even consider severing Merhi’s case from the main tribunal to avoid unnecessary delays.