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The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Tuesday delivered its 2,600 page verdict on the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in a massive car bombing on 14 February 2005 in Beirut.  A single event that characterized political violence in Lebanon, but at the same tome shook the world.

More than 15 years later, the STL handed down its verdict in the trial of four individuals accused, and tried in their absence, of Hariri’s assassination, clearing the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and the Syrian regime of any involvement. 


Since the reading of the summary of the judgment, that lasted several hours, the comments have flown in from many different quarters – very few, if any, are congratulatory.  As Guernica 37 Head of Chambers, Toby Cadman noted, an acquittal is not a failure and sometimes it goes to demonstrate the credibility of the process and the institution as being independent and impartial, but at a cost of almost one billion dollars and a trial that saw no defendants in the dock, in an environment that demands justice be served, one must ask what purpose was served by the last 11 years in The Hague.


The case went to trial in The Hague, with none of the accused in custody in what was the first trial in absentia before an international court since Nuremberg.  On trial were four members of the Iran-backed political party and militia - Salim Ayyash, accused of overseeing preparations for the attack, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra, and Hassan Merhi - none of whom were ever located. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah refused to hand over the quartet.


The trial, which has been running since 2009, cost at least 970 million dollars to prosecute, with 12 full time judges, - by comparison the International Criminal Court is investigating over a dozen conflict situations with 18 judges - 399 staff members as of December and an army of investigators and lawyers. All of this for a single case which took 11 years to hand down its verdict in which the one convicted must be granted a full retrial if arrested and the right of appeal against the acquittals of the remaining three. 


One point that needs to be remembered, reinforced by UN Special Rapporteur, Dr. Agnes Callemard and professor of international law, Kevin Jon Hellar, is that they were not tried for international crimes. They were tried for a domestic criminal offence under predominantly domestic law.  Guernica Associate Member, Dr. Mark Kersten, tweeted that a trial process of 11 years (first estimate: 3 years), cost of  $800million (first estimate: $120million), no defendants in court, judgment running 2,600 pages, whilst it will be judged on more, this is the red carpet for critics.

The tribunal in the Netherlands acquitted three of the four defendants due to lack of evidence, convicting Ayyash of conspiring to carry out the attack. However, should he ever be apprehended, Ayyash would be entitled to a complete retrial as he was tried in his absence. The long-awaited verdict has proved disappointing to many Lebanese - and others - who had high hopes for ending the cycle of impunity in the country for political killings. 


While the court did say that “Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and his political allies”, it concluded that it lacked the evidence needed to implicate them in the crime. “It’s like in 9/11 if you name the hijackers and not bin Laden,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of Paris-based research centre the Arab Reform Initiative. “This was way above Ayyash’s pay grade.” 

The failure to convict on what was predominantly circumstantial evidence has been criticised by some. Professor Heller in particular noted, in his dissection of the Tribunal's findings, that "a circumstantial case can be, and often is, far more convincing and reliable than one based on direct evidence like witness testimony or a confession".


Head of Chambers, Toby Cadman, spoke to Al Jazeera as the judgment was being read.  He stated that: 


“If you go back to the beginning of the trial, in the opening speech of the prosecutor, there was a reference to the Syrian regime, so there was an attempt to implicate the Assad regime and to go after the leadership. Unfortunately, whether it is a lack of independent evidence to produce such a link is anyone's guess…From the outside perspective, there would have been more satisfaction after close to $1bn spent that it would have gone after those who actually ordered it.”


The United Nations Secretary General sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut, which arrived 11 days after the incident. The mission found that the crime scene had not been preserved according to standards and that important evidence had been removed and destroyed without record.

Hariri’s assassination was part of a difficult era in Lebanese politics, with rivalry between Syria and Iran-backed figures and Hariri’s Western-and Gulf-alligned political bloc. Many hoped that the STL would provide accountability for the common use of assassinations as a tool for resolving political conflicts, but the long-winded investigation, hundreds of millions of dollars spent and lack of arrests and lack of ultimate accountability for either the Syrian regime or Hezbollah have proven a grave disappointment.


Writing in the Washington Post, Beruit bureau chief, Liz Sly commented:


“In any case, the tribunal’s conclusions had been undermined long before they were unveiled by the sheer length of time it took to reach a conclusion. The proceedings were repeatedly delayed by false starts in the investigation, funding shortfalls and the extensive bureaucratic demands involved in setting up an international tribunal.”

The trial, which cost close to one billion dollars, has been described as a very expensive academic exercise that will serve no lasting purpose to the victims. 


Victims continue their long wait for the truth behind the 2005 bombing, and this does not bode well for those demanding accountability for Lebanon’s latest tragedy. The STL has not been a success for international justice, and leaves behind a Lebanon more broken than when the tribunal began. As the legal maxim goes, “justice delayed is justice denied”.

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