BEIRUT: The president of a UN-backed tribunal charged with prosecuting suspects in the assassination of Lebanon’s former Premier Rafik Hariri said Saturday he was confident it would move to prosecution within the next 12 months.
Writing in the first annual report of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Antonio Cassese said “significant progress” had been made in putting together a case against Hariri’s killers.
Critically, prosecutors were “getting closer to identifying the suspected suicide bomber by narrowing down the individual’s geographic origin and partially reconstructing the individual’s face.”
Such progress came in spite of the sophisticated nature of the crime, the 60-page report said. Cassese also noted as progress the fact that prosecutors had obtained “additional information to support the fact that the perpetrators of the attack carried out the attack with the complicity of a wider group” and developed leads connecting Hariri’s killing with other politically motivated killings that followed.
“Now that it has efficiently and rapidly put in place all the legal and practical infrastructures required of a court of law, the Tribunal is bracing itself for a prompt, fair and expeditious administration of justice. It is confident that in the next 12 months it will efficiently move to judicial action,” the report said.
Cassese noted that because of the terrorist nature of Hariri’s killings, investigations needed to be pursued carefully “amidst real dangers for staff and their contacts.”
The report has been submitted to the Lebanese government and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has in turn referred it to Security Council member states.
Tribunal officials have conducted over 280 interviews since it began work in March 2009, Cassese said.
“Despite the challenges ahead, the Tribunal intends to dispense justice free from any political or ideological fetter and based on the full respect for the rights of both the defendants and the victims,” said the report, noting the critical importance of continued funding and judicial assistance from the international community in order to achieve those goals.
The tribunal has a budget of $55.4 million for 2010, up from $51.4 million in 2009.
In remarks on Sunday, Hariri’s son and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the report offered hope that those responsible would soon be identified. “The report gives us hope,” AFP quoted Hariri as telling reporters in Kuwait, where he is on an official visit. “The report is an indication to the credibility of the tribunal … [and] shows the tribunal needs more time to reach the truth, and the Lebanese government and people should wait,” he added.
The STL was established by a UN Security Council resolution in 2007 and is the first international tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime. Unlike most other tribunals, the STL applies Lebanese law to acts of terrorism, gives a greater active role to its judges, allows for trials in absentia, and employs a pre-trial judge with considerable authority. The tribunal currently has 276 staff from 59 countries.
Five-time former premier and billionaire Hariri was killed on February 14, 2005, along with 22 others in a truck bombing as his convoy passed through Beirut’s seafront. His murder, the first in a string of similar political assassinations targeting anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, was widely blamed on Syria. Damascus has repeatedly denied allegations of involvement and has cooperated with UN investigations into the killing.
In April 2009, four Lebanese generals held since 2005 without charge in connection with Hariri’s killing were released from prison.
The STL currently has no known suspects in custody and has yet to issue any indictments.