Special Tribunal for Lebanon Opens Trial of 4 Accused in Rafiq Hariri Assassination, in Abstentia

Last week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) opened the trial proceedings against Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra for the Beirut bombing that killed 22 individuals, including the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, on February 14, 2005. See STL, Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al. (Case STL-11-01), Indictment (Public Redacted Version), 10 June 2011, STL-11-01/I/PTJ/F0007/A01/PRV/20110816/R091733-R091779/EN/pvk, preamble. [STL] The STL is conducting the trial in absentia, meaning that the accused are not physically present at the court’s seat in The Hague. Id. The STL’s proceedings are also garnering significant attention due to allegations that they are politically motivated, and because they mark the first instance of an international court prosecuting individuals on terrorism charges. [BBC]

Special Tribunal Lebanon
Credit: Special Tribunal for Lebanon

Rafiq Hariri was killed when a car bomb struck his motorcade and destroyed his armored car in downtown Beirut. Hariri supporters suggested that he was killed due to his opposition to the presence of the Syrian armed forces deployed in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, initially as peacekeepers during Lebanon’s Civil War. [CNN]  Hariri’s assassination sparked political protests known as the Cedar Revolution, which led Syria to withdraw its troops on March 2, 2005. [Tavaana] The accused are allegedly members of the militant group Hezbollah, which has denied involvement in the bombing. [BBC]

Establishing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

As a reaction to the 2005 bombing, the UN Security Council and the government of Lebanon jointly agreed to establish the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), an internationalized criminal tribunal. [STL] The UN Security Council initially established the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), through Resolution 1595, to help Lebanese authorities investigate the bombing and gather evidence. As bombings continued, the Lebanese government requested the UN to create “a tribunal of ‘international character.’” [STL]  On January 23, 2007 the UN and the government of Lebanon established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon through Resolution 1757.  The UNIIIC’s mandate ended on February 28, 2009, and its jurisdiction and reports were transferred to the STL, which opened on March 1, 2009. [STL

The STL’s mandate is limited to prosecuting those responsible for the bombing that killed Hariri. See UNSecurity Council, Resolution 1757, Agreement between the United Nations and the Lebanese Republic on the Establishment of a Special Tribunal for Lebanon, S/RES/1757, Annex, 30 May 2007, art. 1. The foundational agreement also provides that the STL may exercise jurisdiction over other terrorist attacks occurring in Lebanon between October 1, 2004 and December 12, 2005, if it determines they are connected to the February 14, 2005 bombing. Id. The government of Lebanon and the Security Council are authorized, with the UN Security Council’s consent, to extend the STL’s temporal jurisdiction over related crimes. Id.

The mandate has faced criticism for being too narrow; for example, Amnesty International expressed concern that the STL’s focus will “do nothing to address the enormous number of other grave human rights abuses committed in Lebanon in recent decades.” [Amnesty]

The Case of Ayyash et al.

The four accused (Ayyash, Badreddine, Oneissi, and Sabra) are charged with conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act. See STL, Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al. (Case STL-11-01), Indictment (Public Redacted Version), 10 June 2011, STL-11-01/I/PTJ/F0007/A01/PRV/20110816/R091733-R091779/EN/pvk, preamble. Badreddine and Ayyash face additional charges of committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device, intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosive materials, and attempted intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosive materials. Id. Oneissi and Sabra also charged with being accomplices to those additional charges. Id.

Hassan Habib Merhi is a fifth suspect to the bombing who is currently facing separate charges. [Reuters]  The STL is considering joining his case with the Ayyash et al. case. See STL, Prosecutor v. Hassan Habib Merhi (Case STL-13-04), Public Transcript of the Hearing Held on 14 January 2014 in the Case of Hassan Habib Merhi, STL-13-04_PT_T1_OFF_PUB_EN 1/47, p. 3–6.

The trial began with opening statements by the prosecutor on January 16, followed by statements from the legal representatives of the victims and the defendants. [STL] On January 22, the prosecution began presenting evidence concerning the events of February 14, 2005. [STL] The prosecution plans on presenting the case in three parts, with the second and third parts involving telecommunications evidence consisting of records illustrating mobile phones networks allegedly used to facilitate the attack and cell phone tower data tracking the accused’s movement.  [NOW]

The defense has reportedly criticized the prosecution’s telecommunications evidence, contending that phone records without more information as to the content of the messages are insufficient to prove the accused’s involvement with the bombing. [Reuters]

Witness statements will continue throughout this week; there will be seven witnesses testifying in person, one will be videoconferencing, and 23 witnesses’ written statements have been submitted into evidence. [STL] The STL website is streaming the live trial proceedings in English, French, and Arabic here.

Reactions to the Trial

On the opening day of the trial, a car bomb exploded in the center of Hermel, Lebanon, killing five individuals and injuring dozens. [UN] Hermel is known as a “Hezbollah stronghold” located along Lebanon’s border with Syria. [Reuters] This bombing “fit a pattern of attacks by rival sectarian groups” throughout Lebanon, which has experienced increased violence recently. [Reuters]

The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the bombing, reaffirming that “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed,” and stressing the need to “bring the perpetrators to justice.”

While the UN publicly supports the STL, the tribunal has received a mixed reaction on the ground.  [GlobalPost] The UN Security Council issued a statement welcoming the opening day of the trial, stressing the “vital importance of combating impunity for the long-term stability and security of Lebanon.” A spokesperson for the STL, Marten Youssef, stated that the Ayyash et al. case is the “first trial for a crime of terrorism in an international tribunal,” which has been described as an important development in international criminal law. [CNN] However, some are concerned that the STL proceedings will further polarize Lebanon’s political parties and others have questioned the appropriateness of using an international body to address the domestic problem of terrorism. [GlobalPost]  For an account of the political tension surrounding the role of the Tribunal see Nadim Shehadi’s article, Lessons from Lebanon’s Hariri Tribunal published in Carnegie Middle East Center on January 14, 2014.

For the latest developments on the Ayyash et al. case, visit the STL website.  For more information on international criminal law and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, see IJRC’s page on international criminal law, and Issam Michael Saliba, International Tribunals, National Crimes and the Hariri Assassination: A Novel Development in International Criminal Law, Law Library of Congress, June 6, 2007.