The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will hold trial for the first time this Thursday Jan. 16, nearly eight years after a 1000 kg car bomb ripped through downtown Beirut killing Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 21 others. The attack was the first of many to follow that targeted Lebanese political figures and journalists.
Attempts to counter these assassinations and deal justice to the assassins led to the formation of the STL on March 1, 2009.
As described on its official website, The STL’s “primary mandate is to hold trials for the people accused of carrying out the attack of Feb. 14, 2005 which killed 23 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, and injured many others.”
While the assassination of Hariri and others has been universally condemned, the STL remains an issue of grave controversy in Lebanon disagreed upon by opposing political factions.
“The courts will be highly politicized since they are indicting members of Hezbollah,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “Lebanon is split between those who support the indictment and see Hezbollah as a clear suspect and those who see the court with suspicion and as an attempt to undermine Hezbollah’s resistance role.”
Based on the outskirts of The Hague, Netherlands the STL is composed of four organs: The Chamber, The Office of the Prosecutor, The Defense Office, and the Registry. Overlooking the entire process is the STL’s President, Judge Sir David Baragwanath. In his absence, Judge Ralph Riachi takes control of Baragwanath’s responsibilities.
The Chamber is separate from the other three offices and is made up of 11 judges, divided into three sections: Pre-trial, trial, and appeals. Made up of both international and Lebanese judges, the Chambers decide whether the accused are guilty or innocent.
Evidence for the case was gathered using communication analysis and witness statements to identify the alleged planners of the attacks. However, the prosecution at Thursday’s trial will present additional evidence, in addition to the telecommunications records already on file.
Canadian lawyer Norman Farrell leads the Office of the Prosecutor, responsible for investigating and prosecuting suspects related to the killing of Hariri and others on Feb. 14, 2005. The attacks in Lebanon between Oct. 1, 2004 to Dec. 12, 2005 also come under his scope of responsibilities as do the “attacks on any date after 12 December 2005 as decided by Lebanon and the United Nations with the consent of the U.N. Security Council if these attacks are connected and are of a similar nature and gravity to the attack of 14 February 2005.”
Infographic: Special Tribunal for Lebanon
On the other side of the aisle, Francois Roux leads the Defense Office. The Defense Office is independent in that it does not take instructions from the accused.
The STL has been surrounded in controversy and has been rejected by Hezbollah as an Israeli plot to stir tensions in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah and some of the party’s allies believe that the tribunal is politically backed by the U.S. and Israel to create strife between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon and to show Hezbollah as criminal murders and terrorists and not as a resistance to Israel,” said Lebanese political analyst Dr. Haytham Mouzahem. “That's why they refuse this tribunal.”
Other Lebanese and Syrian figures have accused radical jihadist factions for the 2005 assassination.
There is also the case of the “false witnesses”, when two men claiming to be former Syrian intelligence officers told the United Nations International Independent Investigation Committee, the U.N. branch that collected much of the investigation’s evidence, that the Syrian government was involved in Hariri’s assassination. Shortly following the formation of the STL, then-President Daniel Bellemare declared the witnesses no longer of interest to the court. There has been no exploration into the case of the “false witnesses” to date in spite of calls by some Lebanese figures to investigate the matter.
On July 29, 2011 Pre-Trial Judge Daniel Fransen lifted the confidentiality of the names of the accused. Hezbollah has repeatedly said they will not turn over their party members and maintain their innocence.
Despite the controversy, the trial will begin on January 16 and the four accused persons will be on trial in absentia. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra are all members of the Lebanese Shiite political and military movement Hezbollah.
Of the four, Badreddine is thought to be the most prominent. Born on April 6, 1961, in Beirut, Badreddine is the cousin and brother in law of the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh. Badreddine replaced the slain Mughniyeh as Hezbollah’s Head of Security a year after the latter’s death in 2008. The Free Syrian Army issued a statement last year claiming Badreddine was leading Hezbollah operations in the Syrian town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. Badreddine was arrested in Kuwait in 1983 one month after bombs that struck the US and French embassies in Kuwait City. He had entered the country on a passport using the name Elias Saab, one of two aliases purportedly used by Badreddine, the other being Sami Issa. Badreddine was sentenced to death but escaped prison when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Ayyash, born Nov. 10 1963 in Harouf, Lebanon is Hezbollah’s southern military commander and a veteran of the 2006 war with Israel. He is also a US citizen.
Both Badreddine and Ayyash have been charged with: Conspiracy aimed at committing a Terrorist Act, Committing a Terrorist Act by means of an explosive device, International Homicide of Rafiq Hariri and 21 other persons, and Attempted International Homicide of 231 persons in addition to Rafiq Hariri.
Sabra, born Oct. 15, 1976 in Beirut, and Oneissi, Feb 11 1974 also in Beirut, are also accused of Conspiracy aimed at committing a Terrorist Act. They are both seen as accomplices rather than direct perpetrators in regards to the other alleged acts attributed to Badreddine and Ayash.
Infographic: Assassination of Hariri
Hassan Habib Merhi was also indicted by the STL as the fifth suspect in the Hariri case but his trial will be held separately.
Regardless of the attention drawn to the trial, there are widespread doubts over its ability to positively impact the Lebanese political climate.
“The court increases the risk of sectarian tension,” said Salamey. “The timing is sensitive because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. It further exposes Hezbollah to criticism by being involved in a sectarian war and undermining Sunni political leadership in Lebanon and Syria.”
For his part, Mouzahem believes the trial will accomplish little.
“If the trial will pursue its process to the end, they may sentence the members of Hezbollah but nothing will change. Those members will be kept hidden [from authorities].”
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