BEIRUT: The long-awaited trial of five members of Hezbollah accused of complicity in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will resume Wednesday at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as the court’s top administrator urged the Lebanese to watch the trial and make up their own minds about its aims.
“We hope that people in Lebanon would approach us with an open mind and listen to the evidence and make up their own minds about what it is that we’re trying to do,” Daryl Mundis, the STL’s registrar, said in an interview with The Daily Star on the eve of trial.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the February 14, 2005 attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, and plunged Lebanon into years of political turmoil.
The U.N.-backed tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah in connection with the bombing, and began their trial in absentia in January.
But a fifth suspect, Hassan Merhi, was indicted last summer and his case joined to that of the initial four accused. The court decided to suspend the trial for four months while Merhi’s lawyers prepared his defense.
Mundis said the adjournment was necessary to ensure the “fairness and transparency” of proceedings, but that the trial must now move ahead briskly.
“I think it’s important that the trial move forward as expeditiously as possible and in a way that’s fair to all the participants and in a very transparent way that allows the Lebanese public to continue to follow the proceedings,” he said.
“We often think of trials as being the outcome – what’s the judgment? Are they guilty or not guilty? – when in fact when talking about a trial, it’s a process,” Mundis said. “The procedures must be fair; the process must be fair.”
He added that the court has struck the right balance of fairness and speed so far.
Wednesday’s hearing will feature opening statements by the prosecution, outlining their accusations against Merhi. The alleged Hezbollah operative is accused of complicity in the surveillance of Hariri in preparation for the attack and playing a key role in preparing a bogus claim of responsibility for the bombing.
Mundis said Lebanon had an obligation to arrest all five suspects despite the fact that their trial in absentia has begun.
“The obligation of the Lebanese authorities to search for, locate and arrest these five individuals continues,” he said.
Court documents show that Hezbollah has actively barred Lebanese investigators working with the STL from gaining access to Merhi’s home, raising questions about Lebanon’s ability to uphold its obligations to The Hague-based court. The party’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, has pledged to protect the suspects.
Mundis declined to elaborate on the “operational aspects” of Lebanon’s efforts to arrest the suspects, but said that dialogue with the government was ongoing and that he was sure “the Lebanese authorities will be doing all they possibly can to give effect to their international obligations with respect to the arrests.”
He said the difficulties faced by Lebanon in arresting the suspects should be dealt with by the authorities and within the framework of Lebanese law.
Mundis also discussed the court’s funding, saying he received a “very firm commitment” from Prime Minister Tammam Salam that he “remains behind the tribunal.”
Lebanon is obliged to pay 49 percent of the budget of the controversial court, an issue that nearly prompted the resignation of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati because of Hezbollah’s opposition.
Mundis said he understood that political attention in Lebanon was focused on the consequences of the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s term, but expressed confidence that Lebanon would make its contribution for 2014.
Mundis also addressed the controversy over the STL’s prosecution of journalists from Al-Jadeed and Al-Akhbar, saying the contempt case “relates directly to the core activities of the tribunal.”
“What we’re trying to do here is protect the integrity of the process and to protect witnesses and victims who may be called before this tribunal to come and testify,” he said.
The STL has charged top editors at the media outlets with contempt over news reports that published the personal details of alleged secret witnesses in the Hariri case.
The court argues that the reports aimed at intimidating witnesses and undermining confidence in the court’s work.
The tribunal’s opponents say the STL has deviated from its core mandate and is attacking freedom of the press in Lebanon.
But Mundis insisted that the case is “intricately linked” to the integrity of the trial.
“This is something that really goes to the heart of the entire process,” he said.
“Without the witnesses being willing to testify the trial proceedings would not be possible in a way that would be open and transparent.”
Mundis expressed his faith in the court, saying on the eve of the resumption of the trial that he had confidence in its work.
“If I didn’t honestly and truthfully believe in my heart in what we are doing was important and that it was contributing to finding the truth, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.