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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

LEBANON: Venue for Hariri trials still undecided

BEIRUT, 8 December 2005 (IRIN) - Debate this week among Lebanese politicians was ongoing over the venue for the trials of Syrian officials suspected of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri, member of parliament and son of the slain head of state, have called for the establishment of an international tribunal to try the case outside of the country. Pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon, meanwhile, such as Shia groups Amal and Hizbullah, insist that a tribunal should be on Lebanese soil and under Lebanese law.

Lawyer and MP Butros Harb, a former critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, said that an international court was the best way to prevent Lebanese judges from being threatened or intimidated. Opposition parliamentarian Farid Khazen agreed, saying that an international trial would represent “Lebanon’s security umbrella,” and would serve as a “counter-power” to Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has promised in a letter sent to the US, Britain and France in October that any Syrian accused will face trial if "proved by concrete evidence" to have had a role in the killings, according to the Washington Post. But the letter did not specify where the trial might take place or what would constitute such “concrete evidence”.

Last week, a UN team investigating the 14 February bomb explosion in Beirut, which killed Hariri along with 20 others, questioned five Syrian suspects in Vienna, including high-level members of the Syrian government.

While Damascus has repeatedly denied involvement in the slaying, an initial report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in October, concluded that the decision to kill the Lebanese Prime Minister “could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials”.

The UN Security Council subsequently adopted resolution 1636, demanding that Syria “cooperate fully and unconditionally” with the UN probe.

The issue of a court venue, however, may well see both sides locked in disagreement.

In an effort to resolve the matter, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, proposed that Lebanon work with the UN to organise a third-country trial which would then be held under Lebanese law.

“There are competing interests that need to be reconciled, so we tried to find something in between,” said ICG Middle East and North Africa Programme Director Robert Malley.

“We have to ensure that the trial isn’t subject to pressure, intimidation or infringement,” he added. “We are therefore protecting the physical integrity of the court, while still using Lebanese law.”

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance

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