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Fatal Detraction? The increasingly volatile pre-trial phase of the Lebanon tribunal

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It appears that no acceptable compromise regarding the divergent Lebanese political stances relative to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will be achieved. Support for this hypothesis can be found in the recent activities of the would-be mediators. The Saudi King Abdullah, "lifted our hand" -- abandoned mediation -- cold. The Turk and Qatari envoys split, the Americans fumbled, Jumblatt flipped his choice from anti-US Omar Karami to pro-US Prime Minister (again!) and then flipped back once and now, who knows? 

Hezbollah's main Christian ally, Michel Aoun defamed and cursed (ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the American Ambassador respectively), Syria stressed, Iran warned, Egypt remained incoherent, the Arab League waffled and adjourned "pending developments," Hezbollah prepared, and ex-PM Saad Hariri insisted that he's going to fight to keep his job after all. His decision puts Saad on a collision course with the Hezbollah-led March 8 "minority" which, in fact, may now be the "majority."

The odds are that Saad will not be back as Prime Minister but that Omar Karami will. The Hariri empire and its American and Saudi allies will very likely take revenge on the new Hezbollah-controlled government and gut Lebanon's economy.   The Saudi Wahabists are said to be not disposed to bail out a Shia dominated country run by those whom they claim refuse to accept the legitimate Sunnah of the prophet Mohammad. As one Saudi journalist suggested this morning, " Let Hezbollah and Iran put their money where their mouths are. They are going to learn a thing or two about the real World."

It is possible that before long, Le Liban Ancien may be gone with the wind. Indicted, convicted, condemned, dispatched and gifted to others by profoundly flawed American-Israel regional policies. Not even my astute motorbike mechanic, Hussein, is bold enough to say whether, after the coming events that he is predicting, Lebanon can rise like the sacred firebird Phoenix or will simply implode one last time into ashes to be scattered.

This week, citizens are staying inside their houses more than usual, the Lebanese army is deployed at key intersections and overpasses, and some friends are cleaning their weapons and pondering whether civil war-era ammunition will still fire when needed. "Informal economy" gun prices, like the cost of benzene, bottled gas, and fuel oil, rose twice this week.

Not long ago, someone from the Chinese Embassy called (the gentleman must have got my card from me during their fabulous reception and feast celebrating China's National day a few months ago) asking if I thought Lebanon would be safe for Chinese tourists, as a group from Beijing is planning to come to Lebanon before long. Once more, I had to confess to total cluelessness. Meanwhile the Embassy of Qatar has just announced that all its citizens should leave Lebanon.

Serious doubts are being raised about the post-investigative/pre-trial phases of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), specifically regarding the increasing numbers of leaks, the failure of the so-called Syrian-Saudi initiative, unfulfilled Prosecution pledges to take action against wild media stories and perceived legal problems with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's Statute and Rules of Procedure.

Some STL staff and observers are reportedly concerned that the competition and enmity between Canada's Danial Bellemare  and the Belgium pre-Trial Judge Danial Fransen may also harm the STL's progress. The reputably mega-ego Bellemare is said to be still smarting from what he considered an unwarranted and rude judicial slap-down he received earlier this year from Judge Fransen concerning the Jamil Sayeed case. Sayeed was one of four Lebanese pro-Syrian Generals who spent nearly four years imprisoned for alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination based on what some believe was grandstanding tactics, including false witnesses, by Bellemare's predecessor, German lawyer, Detlev Mehlis who recommended the generals be jailed based on Zuhair Siddiq's false testimony.  

General Sayeed and his colleagues are understandably mad as hell and are demanding justice following release from prison after the STL acknowledged there was insufficient evidence to have held them in the first place. Bellemare objected to Sayeed being allowed due process Judicial Discovery in order that he might learn the evidence against him that led to his imprisonment, and Bellemare was unexpectedly overruled by Judge Fransen. Sayeed's case continues as a side event of the STL.

Separate from the reported smoldering Bellemare-Fransen animus, which hopefully will not cause the proceedings to become fatally mired, there are serious doubts among some legal international law students about problems with trying the suspects Bellemare has identified in his indictments. One named indictee is said to be a Middle East country head of state and also head of government who, like no fewer than eight Arab countries "popular leaders of the people" got his job from his dad based on primogeniture rather than his personal record of public service.

Can the STL stage Hamlet without the Prince being present?

Increasingly, international legal critics of the STL are also highlighting flaws in the Special Tribunals Statute and Rules of Procedure. One Court Statue provision is particularly seen to be fundamentally inconsistent with international law, and which binds Lebanon, is Article 22 of the Tribunal's Statute.

Article 22 allows for trials in absentia. One problem is that trying suspects in absentia is virtually unheard of among international ad hoc and "hybrid' UN courts. In absentia trials have been consistently forbidden in international tribunals ever since the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Absentia trials were then, and ever since the end of WW II,  have been condemned for the simple reason that in absentia trials allow for deep and broad politicization of the judicial process.

A careful reading of the STL Statute leads to the conclusion that not only does Article 22 authorize in absentia trials, but it requires them. As such, Article 22 violates Lebanon's rights and obligations under international legal standards and practice. In absentia trials will almost certainly lead to the political corruption of fair trial standards and thus give rise to legitimate grounds for Lebanon and other countries to withhold cooperation from the work of the Tribunal. In absentia trials also will delegitimize the work product of the Lebanon Tribunal leaving any resulting verdicts deeply flawed and likely rejected by international public and legal opinion.

How so?

Habeas Corpus

The right to Habeas Corpus, being the fundamental right of a person to be present at trial is enshrined in Article 14(3)(d) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is binding upon Lebanon. It states that any person charged with a criminal offence has the right to be present at trial. This right is a minimum due process guarantee and it is required at all stages of the STL proceedings. The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) ruled in Mbenge v. Zaire that everyone is entitled to be tried -- and to defend himself -- in person or through legal assistance. This provision in Article 14 cannot reasonably be said to always prohibit proceedings in absentia and sometimes international humanitarian law would allow them.

One case would be when the accused person, after being given actual notice of the charges sufficiently in advance of trial, knowingly declines the habeas corpus right. The critical question, then, is precisely when is departure from the norm in the fulfillment of this objective justified, and does the STL Statue violate international law? It is submitted that the Court's reasoning in Mbenge v. Zaire is sound and once it is appreciated where the burden of proving the accused's knowledge lies -- that is, on the prosecution -- it becomes plain that any argument based on the accused have received informal knowledge or constructive knowledge is bound to fail. Thus, as indicated by the Court in Mbenge v. Zaire, the accused must at a minimum be served with a summons if the STL Office of the Prosecution is to discharge its burden.

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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