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Court Still Under Scrutiny Despite Generals' Release

Much criticised detention of four Lebanese army commanders ends, but questions over tribunal remain.
By Marieke Breijer
The Hague-based tribunal investigating the murder of the ex-Lebanese premier Rafiq al-Hariri this week sought to draw a line under a controversy that some believe had undermined its credibility.



The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, STL, announced on April 29 the immediate release of four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals held in connection with the killing of Hariri in 2005. Some within the United Nations were highly critical of their lengthy detention without charge.



However, several other contentious issues that have raised questions about the legitimacy of the court – such as its narrow mandate and validity under Lebanese law – continue to rumble on.



In the request for release, STL prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said the four generals – who were detained by the Lebanese authorities for almost four years, yet never formally charged – should be released due to “insufficiency of evidence”.



Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was killed on February 14, 2005. Syria has long been suspected of involvement in the murder – a claim it resolutely denies.



Established by the United Nations Security Council, the special tribunal was launched in Leidschendam, a suburb of The Hague, on March 1 this year.



The pro-Syrian generals released were military intelligence chief Raymond Fouad Azar; domestic security chief Ali Salah El Dine El Hajj; security services director Jamil Mohamad Amin El Sayed; and former presidential guard Mostafa Fehmi Hamdan.



Their ongoing detention was ruled arbitrary by a UN working group in November 2007, causing human rights groups to demand they be charged or released.



“Definitely the credibility of the tribunal has been put into question by this huge period of detention without charge and without being brought to court,” Neil Sammonds, Lebanon researcher at Amnesty International, said.



Representatives of the STL told IWPR that they were very keen to address the matter of the detained generals.



According to tribunal rules, suspects cannot be held for longer than 90 days without charges.



But they stressed that the court was unable to act until April 10, when the Lebanese authorities handed the case over to them.



“The bottom line is that the generals – since 2005, up until when the list was delivered to us – were not under the jurisdiction of the STL,” Robin Vincent, Registrar of the tribunal, said.



Meanwhile, the court’s narrow mandate has been another subject of contention, with the tribunal being criticised for ignoring the past and failing to address Lebanese lawlessness.



The STL was set up to prosecute the killers of Hariri, who died when a roadside car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing him and 22 others.



Its mandate is to investigate Hariri’s murder and related incidents between October 1, 2004, and December 12, 2005.



“Many people are saying that this is actually a strong case of selective justice of one very important person who was killed, and lots of other people being affected,” Sammonds said.



“But so many other people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of other people were affected, [yet] nothing is being done about it.”



Lebanon was embroiled in a civil war from 1975 to 1990 in which an estimated 100,000 people were killed and 17,000 disappeared.



“There’s been no assistance afforded by the international community to push the Lebanese authorities into some kind of strategy for dealing with the past human rights violations during the civil war and thereafter,” Sammonds said.



The validity of the court under Lebanese law has also been challenged.



Dr Muhamad Mugraby, president of the Centre for Democracy and the Rule of Law, said that the court, set up by the UN under Chapter 7 of its charter, violates Lebanon's constitution as the agreement was never ratified by the Lebanese government.



Furthermore, he said that in establishing this "one-time exception to the rule court", the international community has ignored the judicial deficiencies and the lack of respect for the rule of law within the Lebanese justice system, which could become worse as a result.



However, court representatives point out that the tribunal was not established to address human rights violations in the country or to reform the Lebanese justice system.



Radhia Achouri, spokesperson for the tribunal prosecutor, said the focus of the tribunal is the murder of Hariri because of its impact on Lebanon.



The former political leader was credited with rebuilding Beirut after the civil war and his death further destabilised an already fragile society.



“The end of impunity has to start somewhere,” Achouri said.



Sammonds said that as a result of the narrow mandate of the tribunal, Amnesty International’s expectations for it were “fairly limited”.



However, he added, “Regarding this crime, hopefully, justice can be served.”



Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “The Hariri tribunal is about a terrorism act. We’re not talking about international crimes and massive human rights violations.



“But that does not mean we’re not following [the court]. We welcome the tribunal and hope it will set a precedent.”



Except for the ruling on the generals’ release, little information has been released by the court regarding the investigations being carried out and any pending indictments.



“We don’t expect [any indictments] to happen probably for perhaps another three to six months,” Vincent said.



Once suspects are named, they will be assisted by a defence office, which will provide assistance with their defence and legal research where needed.



Establishing an autonomous defence office at the tribunal, “is a lesson [learned] from the past”, said Joeri Maas, Defence Office Coordinator.



“You quickly find out that if you do nothing else but provide legal aid and assigned counsel, the quality of the defence generally suffers, and hence the interest of justice suffers.



“The prosecution has far greater capabilities and, usually, is the impetus for the organisation existing in the first place.”



The International Independent Investigation Commission, IIIC, which was established by the UN to aid the Lebanese in the investigation, can be seen as the precursor of the Hague court. Daniel Bellemare headed the commission until he became STL prosecutor on March 1. Since then, all files connected to the investigation have been handed over to the prosecutor’s office.



While most parts of the tribunal are in place, an outreach office in Beirut has yet to be established.



“I think the tribunal has to start opening up to the people in Lebanon. For us, that’s an important first step,” Maas, who visited Beirut in mid-April, said.



“[The Lebanese] are the affected population,” Vincent said, “so it is so important that you actually communicate with them, get from them an idea of their expectations.”



Marieke Breijer is an IWPR contributor in London.

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