x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hariri murder suspects to be tried in absentia

Trial of four men accused of involvement in the murder of the former Lebanese premier is expected to begin by the end of the year, according to a spokesperson for the court investigating the assassination.

BEIRUT // The trial of four men accused of involvement in the murder of the former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri, is expected to begin by the end of the year, a spokesperson for the court investigating the assassination said yesterday.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), leading the inquiry into the 2005 assassination of Mr Hariri, announced on Wednesday that the trial will go ahead without the accused men in attendance.

"It is our goal and our hope [for the trial to start by the end of 2012]," Marten Youssef, the STL's spokesperson, said yesterday.

The call for a trial without the suspects present in the courtroom came after the tribunal determined that Lebanese authorities had taken "all reasonable steps" to apprehend the men and to notify them of the charges.

"These efforts included multiple attempts by the Lebanese authorities to find the accused at their last known residences, places of employment, family homes and other locations," the STL said.

The STL added that a trial in absentia was "a measure of last resort to ensure the pursuit of justice is not paralysed by those who choose to abscond".

On June 30 last year, the STL issued an indictment naming the suspects as Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra.

The following month, Interpol issued international wanted persons alerts.

The four men are accused of involvement in the assassination of Mr Hariri and 21 others who were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

Mohammed Mattar, a Beirut-based lawyer for several families who lost relatives in the bombing including the late premier's son, Saad Hariri, said yesterday that the decision to proceed with an in absentia trial was "acceptable".

"It is satisfactory, but we would have preferred for the people indicted to appear before the court," he said.

The head of the tribunal's defence office announced yesterday that legal counsel had been assigned for the four accused.

The suspects can also choose to appoint their own defence lawyers if they decide to participate or are apprehended.

Mr Youssef said that the onus is still on Lebanese authorities to try to apprehend the men and hand them over to the tribunal.

"They still have an obligation to search for, detain, arrest and transfer the accused to STL custody, and also the obligation to report to the tribunal on a monthly basis on the efforts that they're making to fulfil that obligation," he said.

If the accused come forward after a conviction, they can request a new hearing on the sentence or ask for a retrial.

The tribunal anticipates that the trial and appeal process could be completed within three years.

The United Nations-backed STL started its work in 2009 and its mandate is due to expire on February 29.

During a visit to Beirut last month, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that the court's mandate will be extended.

Lebanon's fractured political environment is largely split between groups who support the work of the tribunal, which is based in The Hague, and those who are opposed to its investigation.

Differences over the STL have developed into one of the most divisive issues within Lebanese politics.

"The Lebanese public is divided - half think that whatever comes with the court will be good, the other half will not be satisfied," said Omar Nashabe, the head of research at Al Akhbar newspaper who has written extensively on the tribunal.

"The STL is not discussed in Lebanon from a judicial level, but from the political level. There is no real debate."

In January last year, the government of Saad Hariri collapsed after the resignation of several ministers who opposed cooperation with the court investigating the bombing that killed his father.

In June, the four accused - who were identified as Hizbollah supporters - were indicted by the STL.

The Shiite movement, which leads the governing March 8 bloc, has denied involvement in the bombing and described the tribunal as a politicised conspiracy.

There was no reaction yesterday from Hizbollah about the trial announcement.

zconstantine@thenational.ae