BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon ruled Wednesday that it would not terminate its case against Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, citing insufficient evidence of his death. “The trial chamber does not believe that sufficient evidence has yet been presented to convince it that the death of Mustafa Amine Badreddine has been proved to the requisite standard,” said presiding Judge David Re in a brief oral decision.
“The trial will continue pending the receipt of further information we anticipate from the government of Lebanon.”
The court heard two days of evidence on the circumstances and aftermath of Badreddine’s death. Hezbollah’s top military commander, was reportedly killed by rebel artillery fire on May 13 near the Damascus airport. The group is heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad.
The proceedings were unusual as both the prosecution and defense sought to overcome the reservations of judges and end the case against Badreddine. Only Peter Haynes, representing the rights of the victims, urged them to hold off.
As in the main case, the evidence was almost entirely circumstantial. Prosecutor Graeme Cameron screened news coverage of Badreddine’s public funeral in the southern Beirut suburb of Ghobeiri Tuesday, and presented photographs of memorial services held in Damascus and Tehran that were attended by Badreddine’s family. He contended that these, along with a televised eulogy by Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and public condolences offered by Deputy President of the Higher Shiite Council Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, were enough to establish Badreddine’s passing.
“It is open to you, in my submission, to find that there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of his death,” he told the bench.
Badreddine’s court-appointed defense attorney, Antoine Korkmaz, continued the argument Wednesday morning, characterizing the mufti’s statement as an official pronouncement that must have been supported by physical evidence.
“Lebanese law acknowledges to the religious community an exclusive right. It acknowledges and recognizes the right for them to announce the death,” he said.
“The vice president of the superior council would never have offered his condolences, he would never have said what he said, if he never had cogent information going to the demise of Mr. Badreddine.”
When pressed by judges, Korkmaz confessed he was unaware of what information the mufti possessed, or its provenance. But he contested that when considered in combination with the family’s announcement of the death, the mufti’s statement constituted insurmountable evidence that Badreddine was no longer alive.
“I would say that it is unchallengeable, the death of my client. This is a high-ranking public official. It’s not possible that he could have lied.”
Qabalan serves as the vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, the top official Shiite religious authority in Lebanon. Ironically the council’s top post is held vacant for another man, prominent Shiite Imam Sayyed Musa al-Sadr who disappeared in Libya in 1978, when on an official visit to Libya on the invitation of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. His whereabouts remain unknown.
But the standards for establishing the death of a defendant are high under international law. Gadhafi’s own passing was not recognized by the International Criminal Court until they received a death certificate, despite a number of widely disseminated videos depicting his violent end at the hands of rebel forces.
Judge Nicola Lettieri summarized the court’s position. “This is hearsay evidence – religious authorities, relatives – no one has any direct knowledge of the passing of Mr. Badreddine abroad. The only persons who would have such knowledge is Hezbollah, Hezbollah who refuses to work with the tribunal.”
But the ruling was not unanimous. Judge Micheline Braidy, one of the court’s Lebanese justices, read a dissenting opinion. “Given the submissions, I am convinced that Mr. Mustafa Badreddine is deceased.” She cited the public condolences, numerous memorial services, and the visit of an Iranian delegation, as factors in her decision.
Korkmaz voiced his strong disagreement with the court’s decision, and indicated he had professional reservations about how and whether to continue. He said it may not be in the best interests of his client for him to refrain from participating in parts of the trial.
The court noted that prosecutors have made a number of requests for assistance to the Lebanese authorities seeking further information on Badreddine’s fate, and are still waiting for them to respond. If new evidence leads the tribunal to declare the Hezbollah commander dead and terminate its case against him, prosecutors will file a revised indictment for the four remaining defendants. For now, the trial will proceed as if Badreddine is still alive.