STL defense exasperated by prosecution’s change of tack


STL defense exasperated by prosecution’s change of tack
Kareem Shaheen/The Daily Star/Nov. 24, 2014

BEIRUT: A top defense lawyer at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon spoke out Sunday against prosecutors for radically changing the scope of trial as they began to examine the breakdown of relations between Syrian President Bashar Assad and former premier Rafik Hariri ahead of the latter’s assassination.

He said that defense lawyers had understood the political testimony that began last week in the Hariri trial as pointing to Syria being ultimately behind the assassination, and called on prosecutors to clarify whether they would amend their indictment in the case.

“The accusation in this case began with the four generals, then went to Syria, then from there to Hezbollah through individuals that are alleged to be members in Hezbollah, and now it is returning to Syria,” Yasser Hassan, a defense lawyer for Hussein Oneissi, one of five suspects allegedly involved in the assassination plot, told The Daily Star in an interview.

“After nearly a whole year of trial there was no mention of motive, now the prosecution is making this fundamental addition, the political motive for carrying out the crime,” he said. “This has the effect of adding a new dimension to the trial [and] constitutes a change of extreme importance in the case, which may have legal consequences in the future.”

Hassan’s comments came as defense lawyers grow increasingly frustrated at the radical change in the trial’s scope to include Syria’s alleged role in what is the worst political crime in recent Lebanese history – a surprise reversal in a case that has long ignored Syria.

They are also frustrated at what appears to be the prosecution’s dithering in the case – it is now pointing to Syria for a political motive for the killing without presenting an indictment formally laying out Syria’s role.

MP Marwan Hamade, a former minister and Hariri confidante, was the first political witness to testify at the STL last week.

A dozen other politicians, witnesses and advisors are expected to testify in the coming months on Syrian-Lebanese tensions.

Their testimony raises the specter for the first time of formal accusations against Syrian officials in the case, though none have been made yet by prosecutors.

Prosecutors have never presented a motive for why the five accused, all supporters of Hezbollah, may have assassinated Hariri. The lack of motive in the indictment was seen as a serious flaw in a case that is built largely on circumstantial evidence.

It was also particularly problematic since relations between Hariri and Hezbollah were at a high point before his assassination, with regular, intimate meetings between Hariri and the party’s secretary-general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Prosecutors never said the suspects had a personal motive to kill the former premier. They now say the political testimony of Hamade and others will reveal the political motive for the crime.

Hassan said the expansion in the scope of the trial would place a great burden on defense lawyers, who have so far been preparing for a case primarily based on telecommunications evidence.

“It is forcing [the defense] to investigate the political motives tied to the case after the investigation was focused on it being a telecommunications case,” he said.

Prosecutors are relying primarily on reams of telecommunications data that they say shows the surveillance of Hariri by the suspects ahead of his assassination.

Hassan cited a statement by Hamade, in which Hamade said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had advised Hariri to leave Lebanon after he was directly threatened by the Syrian president, as being an example of testimony pointing to Syria being behind the assassination.

“It means I have to look into Hariri’s relations with Syria,” Hassan said.

Even more problematic is how prosecutors will tie the political testimony to the actions of the Hezbollah members who allegedly carried out the conspiracy.

The prosecution has not explained the specific ties between the Hezbollah suspects and Syria.

“If you are saying they have no personal motive, then their motive is political,” Hassan said. “So you are going to link at a future time these individuals, through their political affiliation, and the Syrian motive that you are talking about.

“You will find a link between Syria and the suspects. Well, how?

“You are saying that Assad threatened Hariri and Jumblatt is witness to this, okay, what relation does that have to [Mustafa] Badreddine?” he asked, referring to a senior Hezbollah operative who is accused in the case. “Was he in any of the meetings? You did not mention any of the suspects.”

Hassan said that the prosecution would have to bring forth individuals to testify about the exact ties between the Syrian regime and the suspects who allegedly carried out the assassination.

But it would be difficult to conceive of a scenario in which prosecutors would try to prove these links without amending the indictment to incorporate this Syrian angle, and perhaps to indict Syrian suspects. Such an amendment, while permitted during trial, could put it on hold for months while it was reviewed and the suspects searched for or possibly tried in absentia.

The latest version of the indictment has been scrubbed of any mention of Hezbollah, except to say that the suspects are supporters of the party, and relations with Syria are barely addressed.

“I have said, if you want to accuse Hezbollah, then do it explicitly,” Hassan said, adding that the lack of clarity in the prosecution’s case was making it increasingly difficult for the defense.

“Do not leave us in this gray area. Vagueness in the indictment is legally wrong.”

The fact that Syria’s alleged role has not been formally acknowledged in the indictment – only through the new political testimony – has led defense lawyers to question why the Syrian aspect has been introduced at all.

“If this isn’t going to change the indictment, then why are you saying it?” Hassan asked.

“What is the motive to bring political witnesses delivering political accusations against a side that was not in the indictment?”