Hariri suspects absent as Lebanon tribunal nears climax

Thirteen years after billionaire Hariri was killed by a huge suicide bomb in Beirut, the court in a suburb of The Hague will hear closing prosecution and defense arguments in the long-running case. (File/AFP)
Updated 09 September 2018
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Hariri suspects absent as Lebanon tribunal nears climax

  • Thirteen years after billionaire Hariri was killed by a huge suicide bomb in Beirut, the court in a suburb of The Hague will hear closing prosecution and defense arguments in the long-running case
  • Four suspected members of the militant group Hezbollah are on trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

THE HAGUE: The Hezbollah defendants are still on the run and have never even spoken to their lawyers, but the special UN tribunal into the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri starts its final phase this week.
Thirteen years after billionaire Hariri was killed by a huge suicide bomb in Beirut, the court in a suburb of The Hague will hear closing prosecution and defense arguments in the long-running case.
Four suspected members of the militant group Hezbollah are on trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) over the shock attack, which also killed 21 other people and injured 226.
Hezbollah has refused to turn over the four indicted men — Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Habib Merhi — for the trial which began in January 2014.
But the tribunal is unique in international justice as it can try suspects in absentia, as well as for its ability to try accused perpetrators of an individual terrorist attack.
It is the first time a trial has happened without the suspects in the dock since 1945, when an international criminal jurisdiction was created for the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
Closing arguments are due to run from Tuesday until September 21.
“It’s problematic, because for the general public it is always bitter when you can’t put a face to violence,” said Thijs Bouwknegt, a lawyer specializing in international criminal law.
“A court without defendants risks being a joke.”
The assassination of Hariri, who was Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
Fingers quickly pointed at Syria after the bomber detonated a van packed with tons of explosives next to his armored convoy on the Beirut seafront on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
The bombing triggered a wave of mass demonstrations that ended with the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon after a 30-year presence, after which Hariri’s son Saad became premier.
But when the tribunal, which was set up in 2009, eventually handed down indictments it named four alleged members of Hezbollah, which although backed by Iran and Syria, is Lebanese-based.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli plot and vowed none of the defendants will ever be caught.
None of them has ever had contact with their court-appointed defense lawyers.
Dov Jacobs, a professor of international law, said the tribunal risked being “exclusively symbolic.”
“The absence of the accused is quite significant in my view, because it puts in question the relevance of conducting a criminal trial in such circumstances, given that there will be no actual punishment meted out,” he added.
The tribunal quashed a case against the alleged mastermind, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who is believed to have died while fighting in Syria in May 2016.
Of the remaining four, Ayyash, 50, is accused of leading the team that carried out the attack, while Oneissi, 44, and Sabra, 41, allegedly sent a fake video to the Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group.
The final suspect, Merhi, 52, was indicted later and his case joined to the current trial.
The court earlier this year threw out a bid by Oneissi to be acquitted, saying that while much of the evidence was circumstantial it was still in theory sufficient to produce conviction.
Much of the prosecution case relies on mobile phone records that allegedly show them conducting surveillance of Hariri until minutes before the explosion.
The defense has said the evidence is “theoretical” and that the defendants had “no motive” to carry out the crime.
Absent defendants or not, the tribunal will bring much needed closure for the relatives of the victims, argued Bouwknegt.
“This tribunal is the only one that is ruling on a terrorist crime — that in itself is unique and fascinating,” he said.
Judges will not hand down a verdict until a later date, while any appeal could take even longer.


Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

The worshippers forced their way into the area ahead of Friday prayer. (Reuters)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

  • The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area

AMMAN: For the first time since 2003, Muslim worshippers broke an Israeli ban and offered Friday prayers in the Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer hall, which is part of the Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers entered the Bab Al-Rahmeh area inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday for the first time since the area was closed to Muslim worship by Israeli authorities.

The worshippers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein and other religious leaders, forced their way into the area ahead of the weekly Friday prayer, defying the Israeli ban.

The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area, which has only been open during the past 16 years to Jewish fanatics during provocative visits to the Muslim holy place, the third holiest site in Islam, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti and now a member of the newly constituted Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, delivered a short sermon in which he reiterated that “the Haram Al-Sharif is all 144 dunums of land, including the mosques, prayer halls, courtyard musuems and schools within it.” Sabri said that Muslims will not allow anyone to diminish Muslim rights in the entire mosque area.

The Friday prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh went off peacefully in part because of an Israeli decision late on Thursday not to make any further escalations, a reliable source in Jerusalem told Arab News.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the new council who participated in the prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh, told Arab News that the mood was peaceful and upbeat. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim part of our religious site that we were barred from using for so many years.”

The deputy head of the PLO’s Fatah movement, Mahmoud Alloul, praised the unprecedented action by the popular movement in Jerusalem. 

In a statement published on the Wafa website, Alloul called on Palestinians to stay steadfast in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa and Bab Al-Rahmeh and to “continue to stand up to the occupiers and their repeated incursions in Al-Aqsa courtyards.”

Mohammad Ishtieh, a senior Fatah leader who is expected to be the next Palestinian prime minister, issued a statement saying that what happened in Jerusalem today proves beyond a shadow of doubt that all actions and decisions aimed at Judaization of Jerusalem have failed as a result of the steadfastness of our people in our eternal capital. Ishtieh praised the defenders of Jerusalem who screamed for justice and who again forced the Israeli occupiers to back down.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and a new member of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Council, told Arab News that all parties participated and share this success. “Everyone participated and every party should get credit for this success. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa unite us.”

The popular protests that led to the breakup of the 16-year-old Israeli ban began on Feb. 13 when the newly constituted empowered and expanded 18-member Waqf Council decided to hold a symbolic prayer at the barred Bab Al-Rahmeh site. The Israelis responded by placing heavy chains at the gate and making arrests. 

After four days of arrests, Israel allowed the removal of the chains but would not go as far as allowing Muslim worshippers to enter. On Wednesday the Waqf Council called on worshippers to pray at the Bab Al-Rahmeh site. All five daily prayers were held outside the barred prayer hall. A confrontation was expected Friday, but the insistence of the worshippers on reclaiming their site led to the Israelis backing down, Jerusalem sources told Arab News.