BEIRUT: Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) registrar Robin Vincent highlighted developments at the UN-backed court on Wednesday, just hours before pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen announced of the release of four suspects held since 2005.
"There is a great deal in front of us, but most importantly we want this to be a transparent tribunal, and it is important for us to let the people of Lebanon know that we are working close to them," Vincent said in a taped statement. His comments were part of a conference exploring the implications of the tribunal, organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and Friedreich-Ebert-Stiftung.
STL officials were "very pleased" with the progress in transforming the tribunal's headquarters in Leidschendam, The Hague. The building was previously used by the Dutch intelligence services. The STL was also "very close to completing an agreement for a Beirut office," he said, adding it was essential the trial kept "people up to date."
A British national, Vincent was the first official to take up his post at the tribunal after being appointed in March 2008. He announced his resignation earlier this month, citing personal reasons. He will stay on in the post until June.
The STL is the fifth UN international criminal tribunal, but is substantially different from its predecessors, said Larry Johnson, a law professor at New York's Columbia University and former UN Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs. The tribunal was the first to prosecute "terrorist" crimes, and could set a precedent for terrorism to be incorporated into international law as crimes against humanity, he said. The STL was also the first to allow trials in absentia and to partly use national law, said Johnson, adding that the move could be seen in future criminal tribunals.
Majed Fayyad, a lawyer and member of the council of the Beirut Bar Association, meanwhile expressed disappointment in the translation of legal documents in the tribunal. "There might have been discrepancies between the translations of the legal terms from English to Arabic, and this has the potential to cause problems" in meaning, he said. Fayyad also believed the Lebanese judiciary had made an error in agreeing to waive their rights to the STL dossier.
ICTJ's Director of Prosecutions Marieke Wierda said the tribunal's narrow mandate was controversial in Lebanon, where there had been little investigation into the whereabouts of 17,000 people who disappeared during the 1975-1990 Civil War. "Much violence was committed both in the Lebanese Civil War and in the war of 2006, and it may be hard for people to accept that there can be justice in some cases, but not others."
Ending the conference, Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatam House) Nadim Shehadi said popular opinion about the STL could adversely affect the tribunal's credibility. "One of the biggest challenges to the tribunal will be overcoming the public perceptions, which could influence the results," he said.
Reacting to the news of the men's release after the conference, Wierda said the decision was a sign of the tribunal's judicial integrity. "The overall state of evidence is so far unclear and it will take a while before all the evidence in publicized," she said. "Putting this issue to immediate judicial scrutiny is an important step that has been taken by the tribunal."
Vincent also commented on the generals' release Wednesday evening, saying: "The investigation into the assassination is very complicated, and the Lebanese should be patient."
Former Lebanese generals Raymond Azar, Mustafa Hamdan, Ali Hajj and Jamil al-Sayyed were released Wednesday after the tribunal's prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said he could not justify their continued detention.