Tuesday's surprise verdict by the Trial Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) elicited mixed reactions among legal experts. Some expressed their disappointment at a judgment that fell short of expectations in a case of a highly political nature.
Their disappointment is justified in particular by the fact that no proof has been provided about the direct involvement of Hezbollah or Syria, suspected by many Lebanese nationals of having orchestrated the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, other jurists stress that the political motives and the motive for the crime were clearly put forward by the judges, even if this did not lead to judicial consequences or a conviction in the strict sense of the word. This view is in line with that expressed immediately after the verdict by Hariri's son and former prime minister, Saad Hariri. He welcomed the "political motives" put forward by the court and the "great credibility" of the STL.
In this regard, former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar said he did not expect such a verdict, saying that the biggest disappointment has been "the acknowledgement of a lack of evidence of the guilt of Hezbollah and Syria."
"The STL distinguished between the principle of the interest of Hezbollah and Syria and their criminal responsibility, which the prosecution was unable to prove directly, knowing however that according to the rules of the STL, it cannot try a state or a party but only individuals," the former minister said.
The central issue, he said, is that even though the court found only one defendant guilty, "we still do not know who ordered the crime and what are the specific political reasons and motives." In particular, Najjar blamed the prosecution for not having done enough to provide more solid evidence and for having been satisfied with circumstantial evidence, which, in essence, he said, does not carry much weight in this type of trials. However, he pointed out that the court "blamed the Lebanese authorities for their negligence and incompetence in managing the crime scene," referring to the behavior of Lebanese security personnel at the site of the Port of Beirut explosions on August 4.
Chibli Mallat, an international jurist known for his legal actions notably against Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacre in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, and against Saddam Hussein for crimes committed against the Iraqis, does not mince his words against the STL.
Mallat accused the international court of having committed "a serious error in Lebanese and international criminal law consisting in separating the crime's motive from the rest of its constituent elements."
"As the judgment has established the existence of a criminal motive for the Syrian president and the secretary general of Hezbollah, it is essential to know why these leaders have not been interrogated in 15 years of investigations to justify the tribunal's conclusion that no criminal responsibility is attributed to them," asked the lawyer in a press release sent to the media.
He invited the victims' families "to prepare their appeal on the grounds that judges have manifestly failed in their professional duty to dispense justice."
A criminal lawyer, who saw the verdict from a totally different angle, said he understands that part of the population is shocked. "The problem is that the Lebanese followed the verdict as if it were a football match, concluding that one team scored three goals against one for the opposing team, and that there was a winner and a loser when it is not," said the jurist, who requested anonymity.
He explained that the real difficulty the STL faced was the fact that the prosecution was in possession of the list of calls made between members of the same network and the geographical configuration of the calls "without, however, having the content."
The second difficulty, he said, is that the investigation also failed to demonstrate "beyond a reasonable doubt that such a member of the alleged network called, from that specific mobile and at that moment in time, another equally identifiable member."
One of the criteria for a fair trial in democratic countries is that "an accused person tried in absentia can only be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt," the lawyer noted, adding that another important criterion is that "the silence of an accused can never be used as evidence against him."
He said if these two criteria are taken into account, "the judgment given should not come as a surprise. On the contrary, it gives credit to this court, which has applied the highest international standards.
Finally, addressing all those who felt disappointed by the acquittal of three defendants – Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Onessi and Assad Hassan Sabra – he said, like Saad Hariri, that they must be "satisfied" because the motives of the crime had been clearly defined by the Trial Chamber. "Judge David Re made it clear that Rafik Hariri was killed for political reasons" attributed to Hezbollah and Syria, he noted.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 19th of August)
Tuesday's surprise verdict by the Trial Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) elicited mixed reactions among legal experts. Some expressed their disappointment at a judgment that fell short of expectations in a case of a highly political nature.Their disappointment is justified in particular by the fact that no proof has been provided about the direct involvement of Hezbollah or...