BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon spokesperson said Monday that the court hopes to complete its mission within the next three years, and asked the Lebanese public to withhold judgment of the tribunal until the defense has its say.
“International justice takes time ... our hope is that we can complete our mandate in the second round of renewal [of the court’s mandate]. Assuming we get three years [for the second mandate], we’re hoping that we’ll be able to finish trial and appeal in those three years,” Marten Youssef told The Daily Star in a wide-ranging interview.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month that if the work of the tribunal is not completed by Feb. 29, its mandate is to be extended automatically.
Youssef noted, however, that the pace of the trial comes second.
“The most important thing, the pillar for us, is fairness of trial. And then, after that, it’s timing. Timing comes after fairness of trial.”
Youssef added that if one of the accused is apprehended when the trial is under way, he has the right to request a retrial, which could extend proceedings.
Last week, the STL decided to try in absentia four members of Hezbollah who were indicted last June in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If the accused come forward or are apprehended after the trial begins or after a conviction, they may request a new trial, accept the verdict but request a hearing on the sentence or accept both the verdict and the sentence.
On criticism of the politically divisive court, Youssef urged the Lebanese public to wait for the defense to present its case before judging its fairness.
Hezbollah and its allies have described the court as Western tool targeting the resistance, while others maintain that it is the only way to end impunity and ensure justice.
“What I do tell some of the Lebanese is: Let’s wait. So far we have only heard from the prosecution. Let’s hear what the defense has to say,” he said. “The court’s legacy will not be remembered by the allegations by the prosecution or the allegations of the defense, it will be judged by the fairness of the trial.”
According to Youssef, the court would prefer that the accused participate in proceedings but stressed that it has measures, including an independent Defense Office, to ensure that the rights of the accused are protected.
“If you look at the amount of ... responsibility and duty given to the defense counsel, it’s actually quite unique. They’re able to present other scenarios [than those presented by the prosecution], they’re able to challenge evidence and to summon witnesses ... There’s an agreement that the Defense Office has with the Lebanese government to assist the defense counsel in their investigation.”
Among the scenarios put forward by the court’s detractors, Hezbollah has claimed Israeli involvement in the attack that killed Hariri and 21 others.
In addition to the independent Defense Office, the spokesperson highlighted the court’s use of Lebanese law, which allows for in absentia trial, as a measure that ensures a fair trial.
In response to criticism of the STL’s establishment, Youssef said the court was founded by a Security Council resolution at the request of Lebanese officials, but the court’s rules provide even for challenging this basis.
“The defense will get the opportunity during the preliminary motions to challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal. This is very fair and within their right to do,” he said.
Following the decision to move to trial, the prosecution is required to disclose to the defense attorneys information supporting the indictment within 30 days. The defense will have an additional 30 days to file preliminary motions after which the pretrial judge will set a tentative trial start date, allowing appropriate time for the defense attorneys to conduct their investigation.
On recent media reports that Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare was preparing to submit a second indictment in the case before the end of February, Youssef emphasized the autonomy of the court’s bodies, including the Office of the Prosecutor.
“When the prosecutor feels he has enough evidence to submit to the pretrial judge, he’ll submit it. It’s his prerogative to decide when and if to submit and for the pretrial judge to decide. The four organs [of the court] operate with autonomy and independence,” he said.
“The prosecution has said before that their investigation is ongoing. This is not a secret,” he added.
Bellemare announced last December that, for health reasons, he would not seek to be appointed as prosecutor during the court’s second mandate. Youssef said that efforts to appoint Bellemare’s successor were “under way.”