There has been a mixed response to the announcement of the decision to “try the four men accused of the 14 February 2005 attack in their absence," by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on 1 February. The Tribunal was set up to probe the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others in Beirut.
By Lynn Maalouf, Beirut
Seven years after the bombing, this announcement brings a sense of anticipation - that at last, the judicial machinery can start rolling. With a hitch: the empty dock.
Beyond this highly controversial and almost unprecedented decision by an international tribunal, there seems to be hardly any appetite left in Lebanon for a process that started out with soaring expectations. These have consistently dwindled to the point where one Lebanese observer tweeted after the indictment’s confirmation in June 2011, that “the mountain has given birth to a mouse.”
“The empty dock symbolises a sense of failure on a broader level” says Nadim Houri, the Beirut director of Human Rights Watch. Human rights organisations were hoping this tribunal would encourage a broader process of accountability in a country whose turbulent short contemporary history is left without any processes of investigations and prosecutions. Almost a million people who took to the streets after Hariri’s assassination in 2005, were hoping for a process that would bring about the “truth” – hard facts that are “beyond any reasonable doubt.”
One of the two main political coalitions – the pro-western March 14 Alliance, named after the mass demonstrations that followed Hariri’s killing, saw dozens of its representatives killed or targeted during that period. It was hoping the work of the tribunal would change the regional balance of power and put an end to Syria’s clamp on the country and era of terror. The other political camp, led by Hezbollah, adopted a strategy of de-legitimising and blocking the process, which it sees as a Western-backed political tool used to stifle it.
Four in the empty dock
The four accused - Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Anaissi, and Assad Sabra, are all members of Hezbollah. Badreddine is the cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander who was killed in a bomb in Syria in 2008. According to the indictment, Badreddine masterminded and supervised the plot to assassinate Hariri. He and Ayyash face charges of “committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device” and of homicide, while Anassi and Sabra are accused of conspiring to commit the same acts.
With a government dominated by this party, the STL's decision to proceed with trials in absentia hardly came as a surprise. The trial chamber stated that “all reasonable steps have been taken to secure the appearance of the accused and to notify them of the charges against them.” This, of course, is one of the safeguards integrated into the STL’s statute.
Relief and deception
Yet, beyond the hopes, expectations or lack of, and sense of deception among the broader swathes of society, the families of those who were killed that day received the news with a sigh of relief mixed with bitter disappointment. Ihsan Nasser, the wife of Talal Nasser who was killed with Hariri, feels deceived. “After seven years, an international tribunal, a Lebanese state, and they can’t bring in four Lebanese people to court?” she asks. Mamdouh Taraf, the brother of Ziad Tarraf, another victim, said he and his family were glad about the decision. “We’ve been waiting for this for a very long time. But of course, we still hope to see the accused stand trial.”
For international law practitioners, in absentia trials hardly meet best practices or ensure a fair trial. But those who do defend them argue that they are fair, based on customary Lebanese criminal procedure and the European Court of Human Rights.
“It seems like a convenient way to close the file,” says Houri, “but it also reflects the complete waste of opportunity in kick-starting a broader process of accountability.” This, he attributes mainly to the Lebanese state, which across its political spectrum has shown no interest in processes of investigations and prosecutions - but also to the international community, which disbursed a considerable amount of resources for this one body. Without matching it with any pressure on the Lebanese state to fulfill its own responsibilities in terms of broader accountability.
$300 million in seven years
The STL has cost more than $170 million over the past three years, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon estimated in 2007 that the tribunal would cost $120 million over that period. For the overall Hariri investigation, an estimated $300 millions dollars has been spent from the start of the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) in 2005, to the announcement of the in absentia trial.
“I would have rather waited longer still,” complains Mrs. Nasser, “what I want, is to see those people with my very own eyes, in court.”