UN tribunal may go deeper on Hariri assassination probe

Terrorism and conspiracy may be among the charges brought by UN prosecutors against the killers of the former Lebanese prime minister, analysts say.

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ROTTERDAM // A hearing called by the president of the Netherlands-based United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, indicates that terrorism and conspiracy are among the charges brought by prosecutors against the killers of the former Lebanese prime minister, analysts say.

Judge Antonio Cassese, last week requested a hearing for February 7 on some of the legal definitions of the charges raised in a sealed indictment filed by the tribunal's prosecutor. A pretrial judge is currently considering the indictment, handed down on January 17, and can accept all or part of it, or reject it.

The areas of terrorism, conspiracy and co-perpetration, cited by Judge Cassese in a public document calling for the hearing, may further inflame tensions in Lebanon and the region. Conspiracy and co-perpetration indicate that some of those who ordered the assassination, or helped plan it, may be charged. A charge of terrorism may have international implications for any parties or governments that are named.

In his request, Judge Cassese said there was a "need for a comprehensive discussion of the issues raised by the pre-trial judge."

Carsten Stahn, an expert in international law and tribunals at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said that the discussion of the legal definitions makes it "very likely", that these are among the charges that the prosecutor is seeking. He said that even though the indictment is meant to remain sealed, "that is probably more out of concern over the identity of the suspects and possible witnesses and their safety than over the exact nature of the charges."

Next month's public hearing on the legal definitions at the tribunal will offer a first glimpse of the highly sensitive charges that the prosecutor is seeking.

The indictment has sparked a political crisis in Lebanon, where Hizbollah expects some of its members to be accused. The group and one of its patrons, Syria, have denied any involvement in the assassination.

Hizbollah and its parliamentary allies hope to form a government that is expected to sever Lebanon's links with the tribunal. But the tribunal has expressed confidence that it will be able to continue to function even if a Lebanese government that is opposed to it comes to power.

The tribunal says that it is ordering the hearing on the legal issues even while the indictment is still being considered, in order to speed up the process. Under the tribunal's rules, such a hearing has to be public.

It is not uncommon for pretrial judges at international tribunals to seek such clarifications. "It may reflect that the pretrial judge regards some of the charges as too broad or wants to know under which national or international statute they should be filed," Mr Stahn said.

The process of deciding on the indictment is expected to take until the end of March or the beginning of April. The tribunal's registrar has said that a trial may start by September or October this year. If some or all of the suspects cannot be apprehended, the tribunal may proceed with trials in absentia.