This month, United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon extended the mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) for an additional three years beginning on March 1, 2015. The STL was established in the aftermath of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and the deaths of 22 others in 2005. [UN News Centre]
The extension of the STL’s mandate is significant because, as the world’s first international court to treat terrorism as a distinct crime, the STL represents a chance to address impunity for certain violent crimes in Lebanon. [Al Jazeera] However, as the only internationalized criminal court whose defendants are all being prosecuted in absentia – together with the delays, expense, and controversy that have characterized the proceedings – the STL faces real challenges in delivering justice and accountability.
Post-War Tensions in Lebanon
When Lebanon’s 15-year civil war finally came to an end in 1990, the Syrian troops that initially served as peacekeepers in the longstanding conflict remained and Syrian leaders continued to involve themselves in Lebanese politics. [PBS] As a result, in September 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559 calling for the withdrawal of “all remaining foreign forces” – namely, Syrian troops – from Lebanon and the “restoration of the territorial integrity, full sovereignty, and political independence of Lebanon.” See UN Security Council, Resolution 1559, UN Doc. S/RES/1559 (2004), 2 September 2004, paras 2, 6.
The same month, former army Chief and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a strong ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, obtained a three-year extension to his presidential term from Lebanon’s Parliament. The extension received strong support from President al-Assad. [Lebanon Wire] Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who had served as Prime Minister of Lebanon from 1992 to 1998 and 2000 to 2004, resigned in October 2004. Although he declined to openly oppose the extension of President Lahoud’s term, Hariri’s resignation suggested that he disagreed with the extension. [BBC: Profile]
International Response to the Assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri
On February 14, 2005, a car bomb exploded as Hariri’s motorcade was passing through central Beirut. [UN News Centre] The explosion killed Hariri and 22 other people and wounded over 200 others. Dubbed a “seismic event in Lebanese history,” the attack fueled sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and triggered a series of political protests known as the Cedar Revolution. [CNN]
Hariri’s assassination also prompted the dispatch of a UN fact-finding mission to Lebanon to ascertain “the causes, the circumstances and the consequences of this assassination.” UN Security Council, Report of the Fact-finding Mission to Lebanon inquiring into the causes, circumstances and consequences of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (25 February – 24 March 2005), UN Doc. S/2005/203, 24 March 2005, 2. In its concluding remarks, the fact-finding mission noted that “an international independent investigation would be necessary to uncover the truth.” Id. at 20.
Upon receipt of the fact-finding mission’s report, the UN Security Council formed the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) to “assist the Lebanese authorities in their investigation of all aspects of this terrorist act, including to help identify its perpetrators, sponsors, organizers and accomplices.” UN Security Council, Resolution 1595, UN Doc. S/RES/1595 (2005), 7 April 2005, para. 1.
Lebanon Requests UN Security Council to Establish International Tribunal
Throughout 2005, however, killings and bombings in Lebanon persisted, prompting the Lebanese government to request that the UN create a tribunal of an “international character.” UN Security Council, Letter dated 13 December 2005 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations address to the Secretary-General, UN Doc. S/2005/783, 13 December 2005.
Consequently, in January 2007, the UN and the government of Lebanon established the STL with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1757. See UN Security Council, Resolution 1757, Agreement between the United National and the Lebanese Republic on the Establishment of a Special Tribunal for Lebanon, UN Doc. S/RES/1757 (2007), 30 May 2007. The mandate of the UNIIIC later ended on February 28, 2009, at which time its jurisdiction and reports were transferred to the STL’s Office of the Prosecutor. [STL: Creation]
Mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon
Inaugurated on March 1, 2009, the STL is based in Leidchendam, near The Hague in the Netherlands. [UN News Centre] It is considered an internationalized criminal tribunal, having been established by agreement between the UN and the Lebanese government. The STL’s mandate is limited to holding trial for the individuals accused of carrying out the February 14, 2005 bombing and other attacks, committed between October 1, 2004 and December 12, 2005, if they were “connected in accordance with the principles of criminal justice and are of a nature and gravity similar to the attack of 14 February 2005.” UN Security Council, Resolution 1757, Annex, art. 1.
Case of Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al.
To date, five individuals have been indicted over the killings, with trials having begun in January 2014. The five accused are currently at large and are being tried in absentia. [UN News Centre]
In the case of Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al., the four accused – Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneeissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra – were indicted for their alleged roles in the February 15, 2005 bombing. Hassan Habib Merhi was the defendant in Prosecutor v. Merhi before the case was joined to Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al. in February 2014 to “better protect the rights of all five accused to a fair and expeditious trial.” [STL: Adjourns Hearings] See STL, Prosecutor v. Ayyash et al. (Case STL-11-01), Indictment (Public Redacted Version), 10 June 2011; STL, Prosecutor v. Merhi (Case STL-13-04), Public Transcript of the Hearing held on 14 January 2014 in the Case of Hassan Habib Merhi, 14 January 2014.
Trial of the newly joined cases resumed on June 18, 2014. In its opening statement, the prosecution identified the roles of the five accused in the attack, relying principally on evidence of phone networks and patterns of phone calls between the men. The lead counsel for Hassan Habib Merhi presented the defense’s opening statement and highlighted the difficultly in “develop[ing] a detailed line of defence with the trial starting in a staggered manner,” the “inequality of arms” between the Prosecution and the Defense, and the Prosecution’s use of circumstantial evidence. [STL: Prosecution’s Opening Statement]
The trial continues this January 2015. [STL: Court Calendar]