Lebanon News

STL looks to maintain trial momentum in 2015

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is seen in The Hague, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: With the trial in full swing and testimony implicating Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in destabilizing Lebanon ahead of former premier Rafik Hariri’s assassination, 2014 was a banner year for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The court that struggled to bring the devastating assassination to trial nearly a decade after it happened has seen its momentum revived in recent months, pressing forth with political testimony that has refocused attention on the Assad regime’s alleged role in the attack.

That refocus will endure in 2015, though the court’s supporters are likely to be disappointed if they hoped to see its mandate expand to a broader range of political assassinations in Lebanon.

The STL is expected to resume hearing political testimony in January. Senior Lebanese politicians are slated to testify in The Hague, including former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as well as the charismatic Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a close ally of Hariri who endured alleged threats emanating from the Assad regime.

So far, only former Minister and Hariri adviser Marwan Hamade has testified on the political context of the assassination, detailing the breakdown in relations between Lebanon’s billionaire premier and the Syrian president.

Prosecutors also plan on showcasing the breakdown in other means – some of the witness testimony will focus on Yahya al-Arab, Hariri’s top security officer and intermediary with Syrian officials who died with him in the attack.

According to court documents, the testimony will show how Arab’s behavior changed in the tense weeks and months leading up to the devastating attack.

Prosecutors are also expected to begin delving into the reams of telecommunications data that form the core of their case, and which they claim shows a concerted campaign by the suspects to track and ultimately assassinate Lebanon’s former premier.

It is unclear, however, if prosecutors may seek to amend the indictment yet again to include additional suspects who are uncovered during, or in parallel with, the trial.

There are numerous other unidentified telephones that form part of the networks used by the assassins. Investigators have only been able to identify publicly five members of Hezbollah who are among the alleged users of the telephones, and all five have been indicted by the court.

But sources suggest that investigators have in fact identified some of the other users but do not have sufficient evidence to add them to the indictment.

Such a step would also mean a delay of unknown length to the trial – one that would frustrate the tribunal’s political and financial backers given the trial is taking place nearly a decade after Hariri’s killing.

Prosecutor Norman Farrell is also expected to finally decide whether or not to shelve the investigations into the “connected cases” – other political assassinations and attempts on the lives of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and journalists.

The STL’s founding charter allows it to prosecute the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Lebanon between October 2004 and December 2005 that are “connected” to the Hariri assassination – for instance if the attacks target the same group, use the same modus operandi or have the same perpetrators.

But in August 2011, the STL claimed jurisdiction only over the attempted killings of MP Marwan Hamade and former Defense Minister Elias al-Murr, as well as the assassination of former Lebanese Communist Party chief George Hawi.

The act gave the STL sole authority to investigate the three cases, but there was little progress in the ensuing years. Farrell pledged before the start of trial to determine once and for all if he would seek indictments in the cases of Hamade, Hawi and Murr by the end of the year, a timeline that probably extends to the end of the tribunal’s fifth year in late February 2015.

The STL has not asked since then for authority to try any of the other political assassinations in Lebanon since Hariri’s killing, a source told The Daily Star.

But whether or not the court issues indictments in those three cases,other connected cases will remain a key failing in the work of the U.N.-backed tribunal.

That is because nearly 10 years after those attacks, including killings that shook Lebanon like the assassinations of journalists Samir Kassir and MP Gebran Tueni, many of the bombings now go unsolved with no progress in the Lebanese investigation.

Even a figure like Capt. Wissam Eid, a top Internal Security Forces investigator assassinated in 2008 and whose killing at first glance appeared directly linked to his work on the Hariri investigation, would likely not have his case brought to trial.

Eid was a key figure in studying the telecommunications data that would eventually be used to indict the suspects.

The STL will, however, begins a different trial in the spring – one in which the defendant is a Lebanese journalist accused of contempt of court and undermining the trial.

The trial of Karma al-Khayyat, the deputy head of news at Al-Jadeed TV, and the station’s parent company New TV S.A.L., is set to begin on April 16 after a lengthy inquisition by a special prosecutor charged them with deliberate obstruction of justice.

The accusations center around TV reports aired by Al-Jadeed that allegedly disclosed the personal details of confidential witnesses in the Hariri case.

Critics of the tribunal say the trial will stifle freedom of speech in Lebanon and urge the court to focus on its core mandate of bringing Hariri’s killers to justice. They also point out that the tribunal has never pursued Western media outlets that published leaked, sensitive details of the investigation.

The STL argues the trial must go on in order to protect witnesses from intimidation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 29, 2014, on page 3.

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