THE HAGUE: Lebanon takes one step closer toward closing the chapter of political violence and unaccountability with the start of the trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon today.
The STL will hear the prosecution’s case against four Hezbollah members accused of rigging a 2,500 kg truck bomb nine years ago that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, plunging Lebanon into political turmoil and ending Syria’s formal tutelage over the country.The opening session will be attended by a delegation of the victims and their families, whose hopes hang on the outcome of the trial.
Among them is former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son, who will be present along with MPs Sami Gemayel and Marwan Hamade.
Speaking to the families of victims in the blast, Hariri called the start of trial proceedings “historic.”
“The start of the trial is a historic day that opens a new page for justice in Lebanon,” he said.
While the tribunal has been a polarizing factor in Lebanese politics, the court’s top diplomat and administrator emphasized that there is no foregone conclusion in the Hariri case, urging Lebanese to “tune in” to make up their own minds on the evidence.
“I would ask everyone in Lebanon and the region to tune in, to watch what’s going on, to approach it with an open mind,” Daryl Mundis, the STL’s registrar, told The Daily Star on the eve of the historic trial at the tribunal’s headquarters near The Hague.
The long-awaited trial for the devastating 2005 Valentine’s Day suicide attack will begin today in Leidschendam, a leafy suburb of The Hague.
The peaceful calm at the imposing home of the court, a few kilometers from the center of the Netherlands’ political capital, is a stark contrast to the bustle and recent violence that has gripped Lebanon.
The trial is set to begin mere weeks after a return to political violence, with the assassination of former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah in December, as well as the intensified spillover from the Syrian war and political tensions over the Cabinet.
The trial will start at 10:30 a.m. Beirut time with opening statements by the prosecution.
Four members of Hezbollah have been indicted in the case – Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra, Hussein Oneissi and Hassan Merhi. Trial for the first four will begin in absentia, after efforts to arrest them failed.
The trial is the first in absentia since the Nuremberg tribunal tried Nazi war criminals, and is the first international trial for a crime of terrorism.
“I don’t think anyone should make the mistake of assuming there is a foregone conclusion here,” Mundis said. “What we have at this point is an indictment and all that is, is a written list of allegations.”
“There has been no decision taken as to the guilt or innocence of any of the individuals who have been charged, and I think it is really important for the people of Lebanon to actually follow the proceedings, listen, watch and reach their own conclusions,” he said.
Hezbollah opposes the tribunal, and has said it would “cut off the hand” of any who would try to arrest its cadres. The party has decided to largely ignore the court since its first indictment was unsealed, naming the first four suspects.
Its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, has accused Israel of orchestrating the Hariri assassination.
Mundis said the start of trial would allow a transparent examination of the evidence.
“What’s important to understand is that it’s now a much more transparent process,” he said. “It will allow the people of Lebanon and the region and the entire world to actually see and hear the evidence, how it’s being challenged, being tested, [if it] withstands the scrutiny of cross-examination and queries coming from the judges, or it doesn’t.”
Mundis said the court understood that there would be political ramifications to its work, but that as a judicial institution it cannot be swayed by political considerations and must proceed with its work.
“I certainly hope that what we’re doing here doesn’t cause further violence or cause further political problems in Lebanon,” he said. “But taking a step back as someone who works for a judicial institution, the work that we’re doing here must go forward regardless of what the political situation is.”
“The decisions and judgments have political ramifications, we know that and we can understand and appreciate that,” he added. “But what is a big difference is, we don’t take those political ramifications into account when making those decisions.”
“I think it’s very important for accountability and ending impunity that this tribunal move forward,” he added.
But since the tribunal opened in 2009, two prominent Lebanese figures were assassinated. Gen Wissam al-Hasan, the former intelligence chief in the Internal Security Forces, was killed in a car bomb in Ashrafieh in October 2012, and Shatah was killed in December in another car bomb.
Mundis said the tribunal’s value as a deterrent would be difficult to determine, pointing out that the worst massacre in the Balkans conflict, Srebrenica, happened three years after a Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal was created by the Security Council.
“One never knows what might have happened had the tribunal not been here,” he said. “As bad as the situation might be, it might be worse but for the creation of the tribunal. We simply don’t know that.”
Mundis said the start of the trial in absentia was a “last resort” that would allow the facts of what happened on the day of the attack to be discerned, and for the voices of victims of the bombing to be heard.
The Hariri attack “was an extremely devastating and extremely important moment in Lebanese history and politics, and I think it’s extremely important that we do what we can to address that and explain what happened,” he said.
“I think it’s extremely important for the victims and the witnesses to be afforded an opportunity to tell the entire world what happened to them.”
The STL applies a mix of international and Lebanese law, which allows trial in absentia.
“I think the fact that we often think the trial has no meaning or no value because there is no accused sitting in the courtroom, I would very, very strongly disagree with that,” Mundis said.
The court has stressed that the start of trial in absentia does not end Lebanon’s responsibility to search for and arrest the suspects.
“The fact that trial in absentia has been ordered ... does not mean that the obligation to arrest the accused is over,” Mundis said. “That obligation continues.”
A recent decision published by the court, in which judges ordered that a fifth suspect be tried in absentia, described how Hezbollah has undermined efforts to search for the accused. Party officials, it said, denied access to the southern suburbs to Lebanese investigators who sought to visit the suspects’ homes.
Mundis said there was not a lot the tribunal could do.
“The situation is a very difficult one and I understand and appreciate how the Lebanese authorities are in a very difficult situation here,” he said. “The reality here is that the tribunal does not have a police force, and the tribunal relies upon the Lebanese authorities.”
Mundis also said the court’s mandate, which ends in early 2015, is likely to be extended because its work will not have ended by then.
“It doesn’t appear likely at this point that we will be finished with our work in 13 months,” he said.