Special Tribunal for Lebanon President Judge Ivana Hrdlickov? defended the trial’s slow pace of proceedings Thursday, arguing that the complex nature of the case and a commitment to fairness and transparency demanded it.
“Justice needs time, and international criminal justice needs time, because of the complexity of the crimes. That’s why tribunals, not only the Lebanese [one] but others are established,” Hrdlickov? told The Daily Star in an interview at Sin al-Fil’s Metropolitan Hilton.
More than a decade has passed since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal superseded the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission in March 2009, and the prosecution opened its case at The Hague in Jan 2014.
Hrdlickov?, elected as STL President in February 2015, said the chamber had received some 200 witnesses and issued approximately 900 decisions to date, and cited the complex nature of the evidence and the hybridized nature of the proceedings as hurdles to more rapid progress. The prosecution is not expected to conclude its case before end of the year.
“One of the priorities I have is to expedite the pace of the trial. At the same time, if you have to choose if you would like to have a very fast trial, not open to the public, not transparent, behind closed doors, with no rights for the defense, or, on the other hand, a trial that’s open to the public, very transparent, with all the rights of defense to challenge evidence and vice versa ... that’s what we have to choose, and I am deeply attached to the fairness of the proceedings.”
Hrdlickov? sought to contextualize the pace of the trial in the evolving field of international criminal law, citing recent decisions by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting crimes now more than 20 years old.
“The question becomes do we want to see justice even if it is slow, or no justice? It’s a lot of work to make the procedures more efficient and more expeditious, but the fairness, I would say the fairness is absolutely crucial.”
But its slow pace is just one of the criticisms that have been leveled at the court. Five members of Hezbollah are being tried in absentia for Hariri’s assassination, and there has been no reported progress in apprehending them. Even if they are caught, they are entitled to a retrial. Defendant Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah operative accused of masterminding the attack, was seen at the funeral of his nephew in Lebanon in January 2015.
“Of course it’s not an ideal situation – the best is always to have the accused at the court,” Hrdlickov? said. “One of the purposes of international criminal justice is to bring justice to victims. And for victims it is essential – the right to be heard, to see that the trial can continue, that justice is continued, even if the accused are not present.”
Hrdlickov? said retrial was a basic right of defendants at in absentia proceedings, in order to guarantee fairness and an “equality of arms” and noted that the STL, like other international criminal courts, lacks its own judicial police.
The tribunal relies on the Lebanese authorities for the apprehension of the suspects, though it has also issued international arrest warrants and notified Interpol.
The tribunal president was adamant that the court’s recent prosecution of two high-profile Lebanese journalists was not an attempt to stifle criticism.
Karma al-Khayat of Al-Jadeed television, and Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar, were charged in separate cases with contempt of court for divulging identifying information about alleged confidential witnesses. Khayat had her conviction overturned on appeal in March. Closing arguments in Amin’s case are scheduled to be heard May 5.
“I think the role of the media is crucial,” said Hrdlickov?, citing the difficult and technical nature of much of the prosecution’s evidence. “The more people understand the more they can have their own opinion.”
She argued that the rules of the tribunal, as agreed at its institution, were designed to provide the court with the means to defend the integrity of its proceedings and the safety of its participants.
“For the tribunal it is fundamental to have inherent power to start an investigation if something happens at the main trial, [if] the court is jeopardized. So it’s not going after media at all, because [anybody] who committed contempt can be [held] responsible for that. It’s nothing against media and journalists.”
Hrdlickov? said she was unaware of isolated reports that the prosecution’s indictment could be expanded to include Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah or the organization as a whole. She said the court refused to comment on speculation about the investigation, which has been rife since the outset.
She voiced optimism about the ultimate conclusion of the case. “I think it’s great that we’re going on, the trial’s continuing, and I believe that at the end there will be an independent, impartial judicial decision.”