The international tribunal tasked with bringing those involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to justice set a trial date this week, while comments from an ex-United Nations investigator stirred controversy.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) trial of four members of Shiite political group Hezbollah will commence on Jan. 16, 2014, nearly nine years after Hariri’s assassination.
“The trial will commence on Thursday 16 January 2014 at 9.30 am with the opening statement of the Prosecutor, followed by the opening statement of the Legal Representatives of the Victims participating in the proceedings, and opening statements, if any, for the Defense,” read a December 10 filing signed by STL President David Re and Judges Janet Nosworthy and Micheline Braidy.
The trial will examine the cases against four members of Hezbollah: Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra, and Mustafa Amine Badreddine. None of the four will appear in court as they all reject the accusations against them. For his part, Badreddine has allegedly been spotted recently leading Hezbollah battalions in Syria fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A fifth Hezbollah member, Hassan Habib Merhi, was indicted by the tribunal in October of this year but will not be included in January’s trial.
Antoine Saad, a lawyer who has knowledge of the tribunal, said that the STL could amalgamate the cases so that all five defendants are tried at once. For now though, the trial will carry on without Merhi’s lawyers.
Hezbollah has long accused the STL of being an attack against them, despite prosecutors and some politicians insisting that the trial is only seeking justice against the defendants and not the party as a whole.
As the long-awaited trial finally kicks off, some are under the impression that the forward momentum of the hearing is due to regional developments.
“The trial is back on track and conditions for a proper functioning of tribunal are set,” said Sami Nader, a political analyst and professor at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University. Nader says that while the West’s rapprochement with Iran over their controversial nuclear program may not be the sole reason the STL set a date, he believes there could be a correlation.
“No one can meddle with the investigation, but the dynamic of this tribunal in one way or another has a hand in the region and the dynamics might be affected but not the content,” he said.
Not only do the events in the region affect the STL, the trial will also affect regional players, say analysts.
“Hezbollah will be concerned over deliberations that will further implicate them in the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri,” said Hilal Khashan, a political analyst and professor at the American University of Beirut. He added that any implication against the party or its members would further add to the “quagmire” that has come about from their involvement in Syria.
The tribunal’s other developments this week included a decision taken by Vice President Ralph Riachi that struck down an appeal described as “frivolous” by the defense of Messers Badreddine and Oneissi to receive payment for a prior failed appeal attempt. The previous attempt was directed against the President’s order to reshuffle the Trial Chamber.
Aside from the normal workings of the court, controversy found its way into the media after local Lebanese news channel al-Jadeed aired an interview with a former U.N. commission investigator. In the interview, Bo Astrom, formerly of the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), said that the absence of Wissam al-Hasan - then head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces information branch - from Hariri’s motorcade was suspicious.
“The comments were a smokescreen,” said Khashan. “[The strategy was] when under pressure try to direct attention elsewhere. We heard this news a long time ago from [former chief investigator Detlev] Mehlis that [Hasan] was not a suspect.”
Hasan was killed in what was believed to be a targeted car bomb attack in Beirut’s Ashrafiye neighborhood in October 2012.
The comments extracted a vitriolic reaction from Hariri’s son Saad.
“If the aim was another hysterical chapter of the campaign against the international tribunal as the trial date draws near, then we say to those who broadcast the interview that they missed such a chance... and that the date when justice will prevail has come,” said a statement released by Saad Hariri, also a former Lebanese prime minister.
While the UNIIIC probed Hariri’s assassination, the commission is in no way connected to the STL, said one source close to the tribunal, who withheld their name since they did not have clearance to speak to the media, noting that they are based on different U.N. resolutions.
Justin Salhani is a journalist based in Lebanon who has written for various websites and publications. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinSalhani