Suggestive international law in the binding court of public opinion: The STL verdict amid political, financial and health crises

By Jasmin Lilian Diab

Just days ago, the Trial Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) sitting in The Hague, announced that it would deliver its judgment in mid-May 2020 in the case of the infamous assassination of the Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri who was killed on February 14, 2005 in a bomb attack.[1] The verdict would thus be rendered eighteen months after the close of the hearings in September 2018. These hearings were devoted to the presentation of the final pleadings of the prosecution and the defense of the five suspects, members of Hezbollah: Moustapha Badreddine , described by the investigators as the “brain” of the attack, killed since and who will therefore not be tried; Salim Ayache, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Habib Merhi, tried in absentia.[2]

Fifteen years after the fact, will the STL decision have an impact on the political scene through an intensification of the pressure on Hezbollah and consequently on the country, knowing that part of the international community considers Lebanon as dominated by the Shiite party? Or on the contrary, the repercussions will be minimal, especially since the ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri had affirmed at his exit from an oral hearing in The Hague, in 2018, that if the guilt of Hezbollah or some of his elements were proven, he would still give priority to the stability and the interest of the country?[3]

But the truth of the matter is that, at this stage in Lebanon’s political and economic fragility, if the members of the Shiite party are condemned, the impact would be heavy on the political level. It is true, that a direct indictment of Hezbollah will put more pressure on the Lebanese government, especially since this party has its upper hand, that is to say, is strongly present and dominant, even the most influential among all the others political forces. At a time when Lebanon needs to restore the confidence of the international community and painfully make its way through one of its most painful economic crises since its Civil War, a verdict of condemnation would drive the point home by confining it even more in its isolation.

Hezbollah remains classified as a terrorist group by the United States, Great Britain and the Gulf countries – a matter which has proven to be a point of weakness in Lebanon’s bilateral and international negotiations.[4] And there is a risk indeed. There is a risk that a clear and direct indictment would lead countries to no longer “remain in the dark” about their stance on the armed group/political party, as well as to rally and lobby the international community accordingly. The margins of tolerance that European countries established whilst distinguishing between the armed wing and the political wing of Hezbollah would likely narrow, leading the country toward potentially losing even more the chances of being rescued by international funds – funds which currently stand on hold amid states’ strict conditions they imposed upon Lebanon in the areas of necessary public reforms.

But some of the political elites and analysts believe this impact has already occurred. It occurred the moment the implication and trial of Hezbollah members for the assassination took place ten years ago. The American sanctions against Hezbollah are linked to the relations between the United States and Iran rather than to this party in particular – often considered as an “Iranian tool.”[5] With the “brains of the operation” presumably already killed, what weight does the verdict have today? And what importance does this trial have in the context of a fight for truth and justice when the implicated currently have such a stronghold on the country’s political affairs?

And analysts close to Hezbollah have made similar remarks in the past, stating that “a judgment of condemnation” would implicate rogue elements of Hezbollah and not implicate the political party itself. But then again, in today’s context, just how much weight will the verdict have upon Lebanon’s pained society? As the once fear from STL’s power to incite disorder between Sunnis and Shiites dwindles amid larger crises rocking the country to its core, the judgment is most likely to be published in the media and make a buzz until the next Corona case is announced. With Saad Hariri currently “out of the picture” as well as at a loss of credibility amid the mess the current Cabinet is cleaning up, the likelihood of people taking to the streets or erupting into violence is slim (and not just because of a fear of catching Corona virus).

As the hearings began in June 2014, this would have meant that they lasted more than four years, and that the deliberations did not end until a year and a half later.[6] And as the international community, international criminal law as well as the international legal framework struggles to establish itself as a true instrument of legal implementation and influence, this trial serves as a another bump on the ride (a turning point at most) for the development of the discipline. Prior to reaching the stage of an international tribunal, the case had followed a tedious path, first being the subject to an investigation carried out by an International Commission of Inquiry reporting to the United Nations, which is not an organ of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In 2009, the court formally began its work, leading to the indictment issued by the prosecutor in 2011 against four suspects, followed by another in 2013 against a fifth suspect.[7] This tribunal is chaired by Australian David Re and is composed of two members, Micheline Braidy from Lebanon and Janet Nosworthy from South America, as well as two alternate members who will all participate in the sitting of the judgment.[8]

At this stage, the court could either exonerate the accused or convict them. In the latter case, the decision will not include an award, that is to say, it will not indicate any details of the penalties incurred. It will reportedly take almost three months of consultations based on the hearing of witnesses and victims to measure the extent to which the criminal act has caused turbulence in society, and it is only after this process that the sentence will be rendered – making the influence of this process even more questionable at this point.

The verdict may be appealed to the STL Court of Appeal, composed of Ivana Hrdličková, its President, Ralph Riachi, its Vice-president, and three other members. Who can file this appeal? The prosecutor certainly, but the question arises especially for potential convicts, knowing for example that Lebanese law does not recognize their appeal when the trial takes place by default. It is up to the STL itself to decide whether or not those who have been sentenced in absentia will have the right to this remedy. From that moment on, it may take two or three years to have the appeal halted.

As trials before international courts generally take a very lengthy route to justice the case of the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri is heavy, and has a lot to examine and a lot to subsequently factor in. At the same time, the court launched new procedures in the cases of the assassination of the former secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party Georges Haoui (June 2005) and the attempts to assassinate the deputy Marwan Hamadeh (October 2004) and the former Minister of Defense Elias Murr (July 2005). At the moment, as Lebanon combats through an escalating financial crisis, capital control, political deadlock and the spread of a virus it cannot manage within its borders, it is presumed that the pre-trial judge is preparing the files to transfer them to the high chamber of the court. In the meantime everyone, wash your hands and stand still.[9]


[1] Naharnet Newsdesk (2020), STL to Issue Verdicts in Hariri Case in Mid-May , Retrieve at: http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/269820-stl-to-issue-verdicts-in-hariri-case-in-mid-may

[2] Ibid

[3] Al Jazeera (2018), Lebanon’s Saad Hariri demands ‘justice’ for slain father at trial, Retrieve at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/lebanon-saad-hariri-demands-justice-slain-father-trial-180912083916681.html

[4] Arab News (2020), Pompeo calls on international community to classify Hezbollah a terrorist group, Retrieve at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1615181/world

[5] Feltman, J. (2019), Hezbollah: Revolutionary Iran’s most successful export, Retrieve at: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/hezbollah-revolutionary-irans-most-successful-export/

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Shehadi, N. (2007), The Special Tribunal for Lebanon: The UN on Trial?, Chatham House, Retrieve at: http://biblio.institutoelcano.org/DOCS/VIIOrienteMedioNorteAfricaIslam/DMashrek/4Libano/ChattanHouse_Lebanon.pdf

Jasmin Lilian Diab, ABD is a Research Associate, Political Economy of Health in Conflict Workstream, Global Health Institute, American University of Beirut

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