Relief in Netherlands as Hariri indictment handed over

Trial of those indicted for Lebanese prime minister's murder may start by September or October this year, says registrar of special investigative tribunal.

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LEISCHENDAM // Feelings of relief and vindication were almost palpable at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon a day after the prosecutor handed in his long-awaited indictment. Even though the charges in the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, are still under examination by a pre-trial judge, the tribunal's registrar said that a trial may start by September or October this year.

"If everything goes well, that should be doable. It has also been included in our budget for this year," said the registrar, Herman von Hebel, at the tribunal building near The Hague in the Netherlands.

The charges are now being examined by the pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen, who can either adopt them in whole or in part or reject them. Nevertheless, Mr Von Hebel was confident that "something will go ahead".

It has taken investigators, including the current prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, almost six years to come to this point, but Mr Hebel said that the tribunal had always been certain of its case. "Within the building there has for a long time been a very strong idea that a case could be made."

Mr Bellemare addressed the tribunal's detractors and others who had doubted that an indictment was possible. "To those who did not expect or want this day to come, I would say that while justice may be slow, it is deliberate," he said in a videotaped statement.

The UN-mandated tribunal is laden with political significance, both inside Lebanon and internationally. It aims to expose and judge those who were involved in the massive blast in 2005 that killed Mr Hariri and 22 others in the centre of Beirut. It may also implicate possible international backers.

The US president, Barack Obama, called the indictment "an important step towards ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon and achieving justice for its people".

The United States was a major force behind establishing the tribunal.

Mr Obama also addressed the political situation in Lebanon, where the indictment has sparked a political crisis. "Any attempt to fuel tensions and instability, in Lebanon or in the region, will only undermine the very freedom and aspirations that the Lebanese people seek and that so many nations support," he said.

Although the contents of the charge sheet have not been made public, Lebanon's Hizbollah party has said that it expects several of its members to be named. The party, which gets strong support from Syria and Iran, has rejected the possible charges and refuses to co-operate with the tribunal.

At the outset of the UN investigation into the assassination, attention was focused on Syria, which had a military presence in Lebanon at the time. Syrian leaders and Mr Hariri had sharp political differences but Damascus denies any involvement.

The mere handing in of the indictment does not, for now, throw any new light on who was responsible for the assassination because the details remain sealed. Mr Bellemare, the prosecutor, warned in his statement against hasty conclusions. "In the meantime, any speculation about the contents of the indictment would be counter-productive," he said.

The Tribunal's defence office echoed Mr Bellemare. In a statement released yesterday, the office said that it ask "that there be no speculation at this stage, either with regard to the identity of the suspects, or to their possible guilt, or to the starting date of the proceedings".

Mr Bellemare cautioned that before the charges are formally adopted, they have to be confirmed by Judge Fransen. But it is rare for charges in such cases to be completely rejected by pre-trial judges.

Mr Von Hebel, the registrar, said that an eventual confirmation of the charges "makes the indictment stronger and means there is a sound basis for a trial".

While UN investigators and Mr Bellemare have been under intense scrutiny since the indictment has been handed in the process has moved from the prosecution to the tribunal's judges.

Hizbollah, which may try to form the next Lebanese government, has said that it wants the Lebanese judges who participate in the tribunal to withdraw. It also wants to stop Lebanese funding, which accounts for 49 per cent of the tribunal's budget, and it wants a protocol of co-operation to be annulled.

Mr Von Hebel said that he was confident of the tribunal's ability to carry on. Such difficulties and pressures had also been common in the first years of several other international tribunals, he said.

A lack of co-operation from either Lebanon or any other parties or countries may not stop a trial at this stage. The tribunal has, as a first, the ability to try suspects in absentia if it is not able to locate them or get them extradited.

In such cases, there are safeguards for the right of the defendants, said Mr Von Hebel. Their lawyers can ask for a retrial if they are taken into custody.