Hizbollah men indicted in Lebanon killing urged to get legal help

The head the Defence Office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon says that the four men indicted in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister should consult a lawyer because they are "no longer free men."

Leidschendam, The Netherlands // Four members of Hizbollah indicted for their involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister are "no longer free men," said an official for the special United Nations-backed court that indicted them.

Francois Roux, who heads the Defence Office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), told The National that the men should consult a lawyer and seriously consider going to court.

"With the indictment and the arrest warrant, they are no longer free men," he said. "They can be aided by their families, their communities and by their political parties but the only person who can make them free men again one day, is their lawyer."

His office was prepared for the trial even without the physical presence of the suspects, he emphasised. That would either be a trial in absentia if they fail to cooperate entirely or one in which they could participate either through a video-link or by instructing their lawyers. Either way, he doubted that the trial would start this year.

"We know that it took the prosecutor six years to build his case, so we can imagine that the defence team will have to be given adequate time to complete its investigations. What is important is time and money," said Mr Roux.

To provide the money, Lebanon has been urged to meet its financial obligations to the tribunal that has been investigating the 2005 murder of Rafiq Hariri. Mr Roux said on Monday that lawyers for the accused should be given adequate time and money to pursue their case.

"In the past six years, the investigation and the prosecution did their work, now it is the turn of the defence. We have to give it the means, and that includes Lebanon," he said.

He said he had held talks with several states on the importance of continued funding for the tribunal now that suspects have been indicted.

Under the agreement with the UN that set up the STL in 2009, Lebanon should pay US$32 million of the total $65 million budget for 2011. The country's prime minister, Najib Mikati, has said that his government would meet its obligations to do so, but as of Monday, the contribution had not been received.

Mr Mikati presides over a government dominated by Hizbollah and its allies. They brought down the previous government, headed by Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, earlier this year because they wanted Lebanon to cut all ties with the STL. In its indictment, the tribunal's prosecutor called all four suspects "supporters" of Hizbollah.

The party has denied involvement in the murder and has mantained that the suspects were innocent. It has also vowed that they would never be arrested and brought to the Netherlands-based STL.

But this would mean that they remain fugitives, said Mr Roux, whose office has been tasked with ensuring that the suspects get treated fairly. The four should consult a lawyer on the best course of action, he counselled. And they should seriously consider participating in the trial.

The 58-year-old French lawyer has extensive experience with international cases and tribunals. At one time he was counsel for Tuareg rebels in their talks with the government of Niger and he was a member of the American defence team assigned to Zacarias Moussaoui following the September 11 attacks.

He said that he understood some of the ambivalence in Lebanon towards the STL. One of the reasons, he estimated, was the difference between the way the international tribunal operated and the Lebanese legal system. In Lebanon a case goes to trial only after it has been vetted by an investigative judge. With the STL, this was not the case.

This fundamental difference confuses some Lebanese. They believe the STL indictment is equivalent to a guilty verdict. Mr Roux stressed that was not the case under STL legal procedures.

For example, he cited "the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. From the total indictments, 25 per cent ended in dismissals or acquittals. So being accused does absolutely not mean that they are guilty".

Apart from this, one of the main challenges to the STL was the perception among many Lebanese and others that it was not truly independent and therefore not credible.

Despite all the complaints about the STL so far, Mr Roux said he had not been able to fault the tribunal's work. The court's decision in 2009 to release the four Lebanese heads of security that had been in custody since 2005 and the decision to allow one of them, Jamil Al Sayed, access to part of his file, reflected well on the judges, he said.

"We may have comments on the basis of actions that will be taken but for the moment the only decisions show their independence and credibility. For the rest, we'll see."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM

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