Lebanon News

The STL disconnect: Distant but relevant

A view of a sign on the exterior of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague, The Netherlands, January 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters/United Photos)

BEIRUT / LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands: Years after the revelations regarding the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri coming from a small courtroom in a suburb of The Hague gripped the nation, the sessions have settled into a slow but regular rhythm. “I’m just doing my job,” Judge David Re, the president of the trial chamber at the Special Tribunal of Lebanon told The Daily Star on his way to work, seemingly unfazed by the drop off in viewers in Lebanon tuning in to each day’s proceedings.

“What other people think and what happens outside is outside. Here, I carry out what I have been elected to do,” he said, making a point to separate the aim of his work in The Hague from the political environment of a country over 4,000 kilometers away.

Re, an Australian national and former senior prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, embodies how many Lebanese view the STL - foreign, disconnected from political developments in Lebanon and the surrounding region.

“I’m not sure what [the STL] does anymore besides cost us money. It has taken too long and [politically], nothing can change,” Sammy Sadei, a resident in Beirut’s Sunni stronghold Al-Tariq Al-Jadideh recently told The Daily Star.

“Even if they find them guilty, it’s too late now. There are people here who are untouchable ... people above the law.”

Mistrust in the tribunal is a product of various factors including the complex and fickle alliances among Lebanon’s political parties.

For Sadei, the power currently held by a legitimized Hezbollah has curbed all influence that the tribunal once had. Even if the four accused individuals affiliated with the party are found guilty of their crimes, they say justice will never be truly served as extraditions are unlikely.

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has also condemned the legitimacy of the STL calling it a “Zionist plot.”

When indictments were publicized, he vowed that the STL would never be able to “find or arrest them in 30 days ... 30 years or 300 years.”

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a longstanding opponent of Hezbollah, has admitted a pragmatic need to deal with the group as a political entity in order to preserve the stability of the country while engaging with STL to facilitate its work.

“We know that they are allegedly persons who committed these crimes,” Hariri said to Reuters about the indicted suspects.

“But at the end of the day, this is a political party that has a big coalition, with [President Michel] Aoun’s and other political parties.”

Hariri’s comments, however, were not a dismissal of the trial, as he regularly meets with STL representatives to be updated on developments.

When defense head Francois Roux announced his upcoming departure in February, he praised the Prime Minister’ for his support in allowing them to investigate their cases.

Prosecutor Norman Farrell also commended Hariri for his aid in facilitating the needs of the trial at a recent media briefing.

Stephanie Van den Berg, editor in chief of the International Justice Tribune, said that such dissonance between international tribunals and the political environment of the country in question is not unique to the STL.

“It’s common among victims to feel that the right justice won’t be served the way they want ... in the case of the former Yugoslavia, you still had people who were accused of committing crimes but remained in power in the government in the early years of the tribunal,” she said.

The majority of convicted individuals at the ICTY enjoyed high-ranking seats in the state and security apparatus during their trials.

Nikola Sainovic, who was convicted for crimes against humanity against ethnic Albanians by the tribunal, was still elected into a political party despite having served his prison sentence.

This is a challenge that has become almost impossible to avoid in Lebanon, Benjamin Durr, legal analyst and expert in the International Criminal Court, told The Daily Star.

While some may argue that the political reality in Lebanon can be seen as preventing real justice at the STL, Durr said that historical changes in political interests and circumstances can in fact “make prosecutions and justice possible.”

The expert drew upon the same example as Van den Berg but with a different perspective.

According to Durr, such changes allowed for high-level officials to be indicted in the first place and despite the fear that the indicted at the ICTY may wield enough influence to evade justice, their prosecutions are still a step forward.

While she recognized some of these criticisms as valid, Van den Berg asserted that there still remains a foundational understanding that such tribunals need to take place outside of the country for political reasons and questions of legitimacy.

“They also have to be run by people who are experts in international justice, which is a rather global community,” she told The Daily Star.

Still, Lebanese defense counsel Emile Aoun, representing the interests of the accused Salim Ayyash, remained hopeful.

When asked whether Lebanese public opinion had an effect on his work, he shook his head.

“I’m asked this question a lot, and while I wish the Lebanese would have more trust in the STL, it doesn’t affect my work. I stand by my case and I believe it is a strong one,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 07, 2018, on page 3.




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