AMSTERDAM // The United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri will announce within days a deadline for the four indicted suspects in the killing to turn themselves in within 30 days before it moves towards a trial in absentia, sources at the tribunal have said.
The announcement by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is based in The Hague, is set to coincide with a widening of the tribunal's prosecution to include trying those responsible for several other attacks against anti-Syrian public figures.
Under the agreement between the UN and the Lebanese government that established it in 2006, the tribunal is to prosecute those responsible for Hariri's killing as well as any other political killing that occurred between October 1, 2004 and December 12, 2005, if it could be shown that it was connected to the former prime minister's death.
By formally connecting the killings, the tribunal would appear to confirm that a concerted campaign took place against Lebanon's anti-Syrian camp, with Hariri's murder in a car bomb on February 14, 2005 only one element in a widespread conspiracy. The four suspects that have been named so far are all members of the powerful, pro-Syrian, Hizbollah movement.
Hizbollah has denied involvement and insists that it will not allow the accused to be arrested. It has said that it regards the tribunal as an American and Israeli plot to undermine the movement.
Lebanon last week notified the Netherlands-based tribunal that it has been unable to apprehend the suspects. Sources at the tribunal have confirmed that it will very shortly move to advertise part of the indictments in the media in Lebanon and possibly elsewhere. If the accused are not in custody within 30 days after the start of the advertising period, the tribunal is expected to move towards a trial in absentia.
It is not clear yet whether the suspects will be personally linked to other attacks on anti-Syrian figures. An STL delegation was in Lebanon last week to hold talks with survivors and families of victims of the string of attacks. Several of them have told the Lebanese media that they have been informed that a number of cases are to be linked to the Hariri assassination.
The tribunal, based in the Netherlands, is refusing to comment on these reports but several sources have said that a major development on these additional cases is expected within days.
The delegation is reported to have held talks with the former communications minister Marwan Hamadeh, who survived a 2004 bomb attack, the former defence minister Elias Murr, who survived a bombing in 2005, and the family of the former communist leader George Hawi, who was killed in 2005. It has also met with the television presenter May Chidiac but she said that she had been informed that her case was not linked.
So far, it is not clear what the status is in the case of two of the most prominent victims of a series of killings in 2005: the journalist Samir Kassir and the MP and newspaper owner Gebran Tueni. The assassinations continued into 2008 but, for now, the tribunal has the authority to investigate attacks up to the end of 2005.
The president of the tribunal, Antonio Cassese, pointedly hinted at the additional cases when he reacted last week to Lebanon's report on its failure to apprehend the suspects. "Our exclusive aim is to find the truth about the assassination of 14 February 2005 and other possibly connected criminal cases," he said in a statement.
Lebanon's government, which is dominated by Hizbollah and its allies, has said that it is co-operating with the tribunal but that it has been unable to locate the suspects. Mr Cassese seemed for now to accept the position of the Lebanese authorities. "I am confident that they will continue to cooperate with the STL and persist in their search for the accused," he said.
It is not uncommon for international courts and tribunals to be unable initially to apprehend suspects, said Habib Nassar of the New York based International Center for Transitional Justice.
"It's always very difficult, these are very long processes, in many circumstances some parties will try to undermine the work of a tribunal if they see that the tribunal is undermining their interest," he said.
The STL is the first international tribunal that includes the possibility of a trial in absentia, an option that also exists in Lebanon's own judicial system. Even though it is legitimate, said Mr Nassar, it is not ideal, especially if one purpose of the tribunal is to end internal recrimination.
"The absence of the defendants in the court may lead to maintain the issue in the political arena rather than having individuals defending themselves in a court."
This echoed an appeal by Mr Cassese who exhorted the accused to at least have a voice in the proceedings. "If you believe this tribunal is illegal or illegitimate, argue this point through legal counsel chosen by you - you will thus have your voice heard on this issue."