The Middle East Channel

An interview with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The following interview was conducted last week with Dr. Fatima el Issawi, spokesperson of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The Tribunal was established in late 2005 to try those alleged to have been responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005. The ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The following interview was conducted last week with Dr. Fatima el Issawi, spokesperson of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The Tribunal was established in late 2005 to try those alleged to have been responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005.

The Hariri investigation has taken center stage once again in Lebanon following unconfirmed media reports that the STL would soon be issuing indictments, and that some of these indictments will name members of Hizbullah as participants in the crime. The Secretary General of the party, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has rejected all such accusations, and held a widely-discussed press conference this week in Beirut in which he presented “material evidence” that Israel assassinated Hariri.

 

Muhanna: When indictments are eventually issued, whose responsibility is it to ensure that indicted individuals appear before the court? Is the Lebanese government compelled to carry out an arrest warrant on behalf of the court?

El Issawi: According to the founding documents of the STL, Lebanon is required to cooperate with the tribunal at all stages of the proceedings. This means that the Lebanese government has a duty to respond to any request from STL for information, cooperation or deferral. Such requests would include but are certainly not limited to requests for detention or execution of arrest warrants.

Muhanna: If the accused individuals flee or are otherwise inaccessible, what happens to the court? Does it remain active?

El Issawi: As in all international tribunals and national jurisdictions, the accused has a right to participate in his trial, in person. In accordance with Lebanese law and in line with international legal principles, there are provisions in the statute and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which allow for proceedings to be conducted in the absence of the accused under certain circumstances. These include measures alternative to detention and proceedings in absentia. In accordance with the rules, it is possible for a suspect or an accused not to be arrested and not to be held in custody in The Hague during pre-trial proceedings and the trial itself. This means that, instead of being in detention, the accused could take part in his trial either by video-conference or through his counsel, from his place of residence without being present at the tribunal. It is also possible for the accused to travel to the Netherlands under a safe-conduct, in order, for example, to appear before the trial chamber or to be examined there, without being detained during that visit. Safe-conduct provides temporary immunity from arrest and prosecution.

Proceedings in absentia may be instituted under the following circumstances: when the accused has expressly and in writing waived his right to be present; when the accused has not been handed over to the tribunal by the state authorities concerned; or when the accused has absconded or cannot be found. In these cases, an accused can always appear at a later stage and request retrial in his or her presence. It is very important to also note that there are cases that might at first appear as in absentia but are actually not. For instance, if the accused initially appears in person and, although subsequently absent, is represented by counsel present at the proceedings; or if the accused initially appears in person, by video-conference or through his counsel, and does not expressly waive his right to be present at trial. 

Relevant documents and additional information about the tribunal (in Arabic, French and English, can be found on the Special Tribunal’s website).

Muhanna: Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has suggested that the Lebanese government can ask the STL to refrain from carrying out its mandate. Is this true?

El Issawi: It would not be appropriate for a judicial institution to comment on statements of politicians. Engagement in any political discussions falls squarely outside the mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The Special Tribunal was established by the United Nations Security Council at the request of the government of Lebanon to hold judicial proceedings against those responsible for the attack carried out against Rafiq Hariri and 22 other individuals on Feb. 14, 2005. If required conditions are fulfilled, as defined in the statute and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, the Special Tribunal will also have jurisdiction over persons responsible for other attacks that occurred in Lebanon between Oct. 1 2004 and Dec. 12 2005, or a later date.

Muhanna: The Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar suggested that King Abdullah offered to seek to postpone the release of the STL’s indictments. Similarly, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has argued that the delay in the issuance of the indictments is entirely political. Is the STL vulnerable to pressure from outside sources, when it comes to the timing of its public announcements and proceedings?

El Issawi: No. The Special Tribunal operates in accordance with its statute and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence and in line with the highest international judicial standards. The timing of its announcements and proceedings is driven by these rules and the burden of proof, not by outside influence. As stated earlier, political considerations are not within the Special Tribunal’s mandate.

Muhanna: What happens if the Lebanese government refuses to arrest some of the individuals indicted by the STL, but does arrest others?

El Issawi: It would not be helpful to speculate on these matters other than to reiterate the provisions for proceedings in the absence of the accused, mentioned in response to your earlier question.

Muhanna: What is the STL’s position on Mr. Nasrallah’s recent announcement that he would reveal evidence linking Israel to the crime?

El Issawi: As indicated, it is not appropriate for a judicial institution to comment on statements by politicians.

[Editor’s note: Dr. El Issawi told a Lebanese TV station yesterday that any evidence serving the investigation should be presented to the office of the STL’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare. The STL said earlier this week that Hezbollah should submit any evidence it has in reference to the assassination, including the surveillance footage revealed in Nasrallah’s recent speech.]

Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese political blog qifanabki.com. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University.

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