THE HAGUE: Defense lawyers for two Hezbollah operatives accused of complicity in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will deliver opening statements at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Monday, in the first challenge to the prosecution’s narrative in the historic terrorism trial.
“This is the first time that there is an opportunity in court to hear about the substance of the case from the defense’s perspective,” STL spokesman Marten Youssef told The Daily Star.
Over three hours, defense lawyers for Mustafa Badreddine and Hussein Oneissi are expected to outline a strategy that relies on questioning the validity of telecommunications evidence presented by the prosecution, offering alternative theories for who assassinated the former premier, and pointing out that there was no political motive for Hezbollah to order Hariri’s assassination.
“It’s a bit like having a tribunal for the JFK assassination,” said one STL source.
Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted in connection with the attack. Four suspects – Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra and Hussein Oneissi – are being tried in absentia.
Badreddine is accused of being the “overall controller” behind the assassination, and Oneissi is accused of helping orchestrate a false claim of responsibility for the bombing.
The defense’s opening statements will mark the start of adversarial proceedings at the court – the first time the prosecution’s case is challenged.
The prosecution is relying on vast reams of telecommunications evidence that allegedly show that Hariri was tracked incessantly for 50 days in the run-up to the Valentine’s Day bombing that shattered Downtown Beirut and plunged Lebanon into years of political turmoil, as well as ending Syria’s formal tutelage over its smaller neighbor.
Badreddine and Oneissi’s lawyers offered a glimpse into their strategy in an hourlong news conference at the tribunal’s headquarters Friday, saying the prosecution had not presented a single “shred of evidence” proving the guilt of their clients.
Prosecutors argue that the extent, frequency and sophistication of the surveillance was not coincidental and shows an intention to kill Hariri, their argument bolstered by attempts to hide the identities of the alleged assassination squad, who prosecutors say purchased their tracked phones under false names.
But defense teams are expected to argue that the surveillance in and of itself does not prove an intent to assassinate Hariri, particularly since the content of telephone conversations between the suspects is unknown. In addition, they are expected to argue that techniques relied upon by the prosecution to identify the location of the suspects is unreliable and therefore invalid in court.
They are also expected to argue that Hezbollah had no reason to want Hariri dead, having entered negotiations to run jointly in parliamentary elections later that summer.They will also offer alternative theories for the assassination, including a theory that the alleged “cell of 13,” a group of Islamist fundamentalists arrested at the end of 2005, may have killed Hariri. Badreddine’s lead counsel, Antoine Korkmaz, said his team was investigating the possibility that the cell, members of whom had allegedly confessed and then recanted their testimony, had carried out the attack.
In addition, the trial chamber may discuss the possibility of joining the case of a fifth Hezbollah suspect, Hassan Merhi, indicted last summer by the court, to the main case. The decision on the joining of the two cases could cause further delays in the court’s work, which will have to grant Merhi’s lawyers time to study the case before resuming trial.