BEIRUT: Defense lawyers for a Hezbollah operative accused of playing a key role in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri warned Thursday that their client’s trial could turn into a “show trial” if his rights are not respected.
“The trial chamber must ensure that this trial does not turn into a fictitious trial, or a kind of show trial,” said Mohammad Aouini, defense counsel for Hassan Habib Merhi, on the second day of hearings after the resumption of the trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Aouini was only appointed to represent Merhi in late December, a few months after his indictment, and his team has repeatedly argued that it needs more time in order to defend its client in court.
But the STL has had to balance the suspects’ right to a fair trial by international standards with pressure from an international community that is impatient to complete the trial nine years after the brutal bombing that destroyed much of Downtown Beirut.
Aouini warned in his opening statement that the “danger looming now” is that Merhi’s rights might be compromised because his lawyers have not had adequate time to prepare their defense and carry out their investigations.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Valentine’s Day 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into political turmoil.
The Hague-based court began the in-absentia trial of four Hezbollah members indicted in connection with the attack in January.
But the U.N.-backed tribunal suspended the trial for four months in February after the case of Merhi, who was only indicted last summer, was joined to the other four suspects’.
The suspension was intended to give his lawyers a chance to prepare for the case, but the team led by Aouini has asked for more time to study the thousands of pages of documents and telecommunications data that prosecutors have assembled in the case.
“This trial is starting way too prematurely,” said Aouini.
“The trial chamber must take all measures to protect his rights.”
Merhi’s team voiced their reservations about the “validity of the proceedings” and the submission of evidence in the case before they were adequately prepared.
Prosecutors alleged Wednesday that Merhi played a key role in orchestrating a false claim of responsibility that was intended to mislead investigators after Hariri’s assassination, describing the reported Hezbollah operative as a “key player” and “committed member” of the conspiracy.
But speaking before trial judges, Aouini criticized prosecutors for failing to provide a motive for the Hariri assassination.
Defense lawyers have repeatedly said they intend to challenge prosecutors on the issue of the motive.
In the past, they said that Hariri enjoyed cordial relations with Hezbollah at the time of his killing, and was considering a parliamentary alliance with the party, and so it would not make sense for its operatives to orchestrate his assassination.
They have also said that the fact the suspects carried out extensive surveillance of Hariri does not mean that they also killed him.
Prosecutors read written testimony that was admitted into the evidence at trial, including statements by witnesses who worked in the immediate surroundings of the crime scene which provided details on the immediate aftermath of the explosion.
The court also admitted statements by a police officer who worked with investigators on retrieving metal fragments from the explosion from the seabed near the St. Georges Hotel.
The metal pieces could be crucial as divers found fragments of a Mitsubishi Canter van that was allegedly laden with explosives and blew up as Hariri’s motorcade passed by, destroying his convoy.
Prosecutors have said that the fact the fragments were scattered so far from the bomb scene shows that the Canter van was at the center of the explosion, lending credibility to their theory that Hariri was killed by an above-ground truck bomb.
The presiding judge of the trial chamber, David Re, adjourned the hearing until Tuesday, when the court will begin hearing new witnesses.