Below are answers to a list of frequently asked questions aimed at summarizing the developments at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon since the start of trial in January.
Q: What is happening today?
A: The trial of five members of Hezbollah accused of complicity in the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others will resume at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. The five suspects are being tried in absentia, since the Lebanese government was unable to arrest them.
Q: Didn’t the trial start in January?
A: The trial of four of the suspects began in January. However, a fifth suspect, Hassan Merhi, was indicted last year and his case joined to that of the other four suspects in February. The court’s trial chamber postponed the trial until Merhi’s court-appointed lawyers had time to prepare their defense and conduct investigations.
Q: What is Merhi’s alleged role in the assassination?
A: Prosecutors accuse Merhi of involvement in the preparation for the attack that killed Hariri and playing a key role in orchestrating a false claim of responsibility for the bombing, intended to mislead investigators. In a video aired after the attack, a man called Ahmad Abu Adass took credit for the bombing on behalf of a group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria. Prosecutors say the group is fictitious and Abu Adass was coerced into making the video.
Q: What has happened so far in the trial?
A: Prosecutors delivered opening statements outlining their theory of what happened on the day of the attack, the role of the suspects in the case, and offered a glimpse into the telecommunications evidence they will use in the trial. This evidence, they say, shows that the suspects were involved in extensive surveillance of Hariri ahead of the bombing. The lawyers of the victims and defense lawyers also delivered opening statements.
One of the main points of contention that emerged in the early days of the trial is the explosion itself. Prosecutors say that a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with 1.5 tons of explosives near the St. Georges Hotel as Hariri’s convoy drove by. But defense lawyers say the bombing is more likely an underground explosion. No CCTV footage appears to exist of the actual moment of the explosion.
Defense lawyers also said they plan on raising the possibility that Islamist radicals linked to Al-Qaeda may have been involved in the assassination.
After the opening statements, several witnesses testified before the court. These were primarily relatives of victims who died in the bombing and who delivered emotional testimony about the impact of the attack on their families and their lives, and recounted the deaths of loved ones.
A number of experts also testified before the court. These included police officers involved in the initial response at the scene of the attack, a fireman and an expert on the CCTV footage gathered from the day of the bombing, among others. Most of the experts were cross-examined by the defense.
Q: What will happen now?
A: The prosecution will deliver Wednesday its opening statements in the case against Merhi, outlining what it believes to be his role in the assassination, in a three-hour presentation. Merhi’s defense counsel, led by the Tunisian lawyer Mohammad Aouini, will deliver a one-hour opening statement.
The hearing will begin at 11:30 a.m. Beirut time, but will be broadcast with a half-hour delay. Trial will resume the next day with new evidence being admitted in the case.
The court will then hear the testimony of seven witnesses between June 23 and June 27. One of the witnesses is a seismologist whose equipment detected the Hariri bombing when it occurred – such was the force of the explosion. More witnesses are scheduled to speak in the following week.
Q: Did Lebanon agree to all this?
A: Yes and no. The STL’s creation is marred with controversy. The Cabinet of Fouad Siniora signed the agreement with the United Nations establishing the tribunal in early 2007. But the March 8 coalition considers the court illegitimate because in its opinion, Siniora’s government became illegitimate after Hezbollah and Amal ministers submitted their resignations in Nov. 2006. Another factor which discredits the agreement, according to the coalition, is the fact that it was not negotiated by the president as stipulated by the Constitution.
Speaker Nabih Berri refused to convene Parliament to ratify the deal, prompting MPs who supported the court’s creation, and who formed the majority at the time, to send a letter to the U.N. secretary-general demanding that the court be created.
In response, the Security Council created the STL under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows the council to force states to comply with its orders, under threat of sanctions or military intervention.
Though the tribunal’s creation circumvented Lebanese constitutional channels, successive governments have pledged cooperation with the court as part of their efforts to comply with international resolutions. But the tribunal’s opponents remain adamant that its establishment violated Lebanon’s sovereignty and constitution.