Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lebanon 'must boost efforts to arrest Hariri assassination accused'

Prosecutor says trial in absentia of five men accused of 2005 bomb attack is only the second-best option
Ian Black, Middle East editor, Friday 10 January 2014 15.52 GMT

Lebanon's government must step up its efforts to arrest five men accused of the assassination of the country's former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, says the prosecutor of the tribunal trying the politically sensational case.

Norman Farrell, a Canadian lawyer, will next week present the opening evidence against five supporters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Muslim Shia movement, indicted for the murder of Hariri and 21 others in a massive and meticulously planned bomb attack in Beirut on Valentine's Day in 2005.

The long-awaited terrorism trial, being held nearly nine years after the crime, is being held in absentia. It is being prosecuted under a hybrid system of Lebanese and international law, reflecting the chronic weakness of the Beirut government.

"We insist upon their arrest," Farrell told the Guardian in an interview from his office in The Hague. "Despite the fact that we are starting trial we should not lose sight of the fact that we need to continue to intensify efforts to arrest. The trial in absentia is only the second-best option. The evidence will be the focus of the trial. That can't be an excuse or a justification to simply ignore the fact that the accused have not been arrested."

Co-operation with the Lebanese government had been generally satisfactory, Farrell said on Friday.

Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, has condemned the tribunal as a US-Zionist conspiracy aimed at undermining "the resistance" and pledged to neither recognise nor co-operate with it.

"We are not indicting Hezbollah's position," Farrell said. "We are proceeding against the five accused. Their [Hezbollah's] statements are not matters that affect my decision-making."

The evidence will focus first on the huge explosion – said to have been equivalent to 2,500-3,000kg of TNT that targeted Hariri's motorcade – and then on communications analysis, which the prosecutor described as an important component of the case. The third part would link the accused to the killing.

"The voices of the victims will be heard – and heard in an open international forum," Farrell said. "The trial is a mechanism of accountability and if there is a conviction, of course there will be a sense of some justice. I am not saying that it is perfect justice. But it is some justice."

Elaborate arrangements will be in place to protect witnesses, with some giving evidence in camera, by video link, or using pseudonyms. "I take very seriously any attempt to intimidate or affect the witnesses," Farrell said. "Unlike the accused, the witnesses have had the courage to come forward."

Leaks about the identities of the witnesses were merely allegations and were not a guide to what would actually happen in court.

Other unsolved killings in Lebanon since 2005 have targeted government employees investigating the case and others linked to the pro-western Hariri camp.

On 27 December last year a car bomb in central Beirut killed Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and adviser to Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq and himself a former prime minister.

The remit of the tribunal is limited to crimes committed between 2004 and 2005. That covers 14 cases and some 200 dead and injured. But its mandate could be extended at the request of the Lebanese government and the UN secretary-general to include the murder of Chatah and others, Farrell confirmed.

Political turmoil in the region has accompanied the tribunal from the start. In 2005 the US and western countries seized on the Hariri killing and the mass protests it generated as an opportunity to end Syria's presence in Lebanon. In Damascus, the government of President Bashar al-Assad feared an attempt to isolate Syria. But initial suspicions of Syrian state complicity gave way to a focus on the role of Hezbollah. Its current involvement, fighting on Assad's side in Syria's civil war, has added to sensitivities.

Farrell, a former deputy prosecutor of the Hague tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, pointed out that evidence was heard against Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – accused of atrocities in the Bosnian war – long before they were arrested.

The Lebanon special tribunal, however, is different in one sinister respect from others. "In Rwanda and former Yugoslavia we were mostly investigating things after the fact," he said. "In Lebanon, these tragic events are continuing."

Four accused men appear on one indictment. They are Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra. The prosecution is seeking to join the indictment of a fifth man, Hassan Merhi, accused of helping perpetrate a false claim of responsibility and being one of the leaders of the assassination team. The trial could last for at least a year and longer if that happens, Farrell said.

Aware of its intense political sensitivity, Farrell sought to underline the innovative legal significance of the Hariri case.

"We are working under Lebanese law and directly with the Lebanese authorities," he said. "It is a development in international law but it is more of a hybrid. This is the first international tribunal dealing with terrorism in peacetime. It is the first time there has been an in-absentia trial at the international level [apart from Hitler's secretary Martin Bormann at the Nuremberg trial]. It is setting standards for trials in absentia … and hopefully making a contribution to having an impact on addressing impunity even if the accused are not arrested."