By Patrick Galey
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
BEIRUT: The U.N.-backed probe into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri handed down its first indictment to a pre-trial judge Monday, sparking the judicial process in the first international court to have jurisdiction over terrorism.
“The registrar of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Herman von Hebel, can confirm that the prosecutor of the tribunal has submitted an indictment and supporting materials to the pre-trial judge,” said a statement from the Netherlands-based court.
Canadian Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare handed over the indictment, which had been widely assumed to contain the names of Hizbullah members, to Belgian pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen at 4:35 p.m. local time (15:35 G.M.T.).
The court added that the indictment files would need to be reviewed by Fransen and “the contents of the indictment remain confidential at this stage.”
It continued: “The indictment marks the beginning of the judicial phase of the tribunal’s work. The prosecutor and his team will continue to vigorously pursue his mandate with respect to both continued investigative activity and the prosecution of this case.”
Bellemare is expected to release a videotaped statement Tuesday explaining the significance of the indictment.
Von Hebel told reporters at The Hague in December that Fransen’s review stage could take between six and 10 weeks. Accused individuals are unlikely to be officially identified before Fransen is satisfied that any indictment has been issued credibly. Under the tribunal’s mandate, he may only raise legal – not factual – concerns, although no time limit is specified under the pre-trial judge’s court rules.
A trial could start as soon as four months after the indictment is confirmed, said von Hebel. The court has the jurisdiction to try accused individuals in absentia if arrests are impossible.
Should Fransen find grounds to dispute Bellemare’s findings, any names contained in Monday’s indictment will not be made public. It was not immediately clear if the prosecutor will submit additional indictments, as is his right until Fransen accepts his submission.
Bellemare has been far more tight-lipped over indictments than his predecessors in the U.N.’s initial investigation, although media leaks and statements from party head Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah have suggested Hizbullah members will be implicated in Hariri’s murder.
Nasrallah has labeled the court an “Israeli project” aimed at targeting the resistance and vowed not to cooperate with investigators. He warned Sunday that the party would defend itself should authorities attempt to arrest its members following indictments.
There was no immediate comment from Hizbullah or caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the former leader’s son.
The indictment comes at a time of heightened political tension in Beirut, following the resignation of 11 cabinet ministers last week, toppling Hariri’s 14-month old national unity government.
Rival March 14 and March 8 camps are deadlocked over the nature of Lebanon’s support for the tribunal and how exactly to deal with the court’s so-called “false witnesses.”
Tribunal public relations chief Crispin Thorold told The Daily Star that the court was monitoring the security situation in Lebanon.
“The S.T.L. follows developments in Lebanon closely, not least because we have a staff on the ground,” Thorold said from The Hague. “Equally, we have a very clear mandate to fulfill as a legal institution and we continue to work hard toward completing that mandate.”
Several governments have come out in support of the tribunal in recent weeks and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Monday repeated his organization’s stance on the court, which has been plagued by accusations of politicization since its inception in March 2009.
“No one should politicize the work of the special tribunal,” Ban said in Abu Dhabi. “The independent judicial process should not be linked to any political debate.
“It is important not to prejudge the outcome of the investigation,” Ban said. “I reiterate my full support of the independent work of the special tribunal, and I have full confidence in this respect.”
Bellemare, in a video posted on the tribunal’s website last month, said he needed to be “personally or morally convinced that the person has committed the crime,” before naming them in an indictment, adding there should be a “reasonable prospect of conviction” of any individual.