BEIRUT: The trial of five members of Hezbollah accused of complicity in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will resume June 18, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announced Monday.
The majority decision by the U.N.-backed court’s trial chamber will end a temporary break in trial intended to give defense lawyers for Hasan Merhi, a member of Hezbollah indicted just last summer by the court, time to prepare their case.
David Re, the presiding judge of the chamber, said the court has to balance the rights of the suspects with the need to try them without unnecessary delays.
The STL is tasked with investigating the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into political turmoil.
The court initially indicted four members of Hezbollah in the case and began their trial in January. But Merhi, a fifth member of the party, was indicted last summer and his trial joined to the other suspects.
Merhi is accused of being one of the leaders of the assassination team and helping orchestrate a false claim of responsibility for the attack by a fictitious group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.
Joining the cases posed a dilemma for the court, which is obliged to give Merhi’s lawyers enough time to prepare for the defense. But the court also faces pressure to move on with the case, more than nine years after Hariri’s murder.
The hearings that will start in June will include the prosecution’s opening statements against Merhi and testimony by 25 witnesses divided into three groups.
In the first phase, five witnesses will testify on the underwater search near the downtown St. Georges Hotel for fragments from the explosion, as well as the identification and collection of human remains at the scene and the activities of law enforcement agencies in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
The second group will include experts in forensics and DNA evidence, as well as three witnesses who will testify about collecting fragments of a Mitsubishi van that was allegedly used to destroy Hariri’s convoy.
The group will also include a seismologist whose earthquake detection equipment registered a tremor caused by the Hariri bombing.
The last group will include witnesses who will testify on the nature of the explosion and the size of the crater left in its wake.
The staggered resumption of trial is aimed at giving defense lawyers more time to prepare for more contentious parts of the case, including the telecommunications evidence amassed against Merhi and his alleged role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hariri, which will not be presented until September at the earliest.
Merhi’s lawyers said that states funding the court are urging the “rushing” of the case through media outlets, and that their client’s case is complicated and requires extra preparation.
Merhi is the only suspect accused of involvement in both the assassination and the false claim of responsibility. Preparing a proper defense is a “holy right,” Merhi’s lawyers said in the hearing.
Merhi’s lawyers said they need more time in particular to consult an explosives expert who will help them determine whether the explosion was the result of an underground bomb or by a vehicle above the ground.
Prosecutors allege that a suicide bomber carried out the attack against Hariri’s convoy using a rigged Mitsubishi van that was seen on CCTV footage moments before the motorcade and was packed with two tons of explosives.
Defense lawyers say the attack was likely an underground explosion.