Yesterday a status conference was held. Due to the joinder of the Ayyash et al. case with the Merhi case, resulting in five accused facing charges under the same indictment, the trial has been adjourned since mid-February in order to enable the defence team for Merhi to prepare for trial. The state of preparations of the Merhi Defence and other matters related to setting a date for the resumption of trial were the main topics discussed during this hearing. Other matters covered were the cooperation of Lebanon with the defence teams and some pending motions and requests.
The Defence for Merhi set out its progress with trial preparations, having just appointed various defence experts (including an explosives expert and a telecommunication expert) who have started to prepare their reports. The Merhi Defence further explained that it estimates to need another 4-5 months to file its Pre-Trial Brief, and expects to be trial-ready in 5-6 months. The Chamber made the observation that because the other four Defence teams have contested the entire Prosecution case in its Pre-Trial Briefs, the Merhi Defence will only need to set out the general framework of its defence, and no detailed or comprehensive Pre-Trial Brief is needed at this stage. The Merhi Defence however stated that it will need a full understanding of the case and analyse the complete case file before filing its Pre-Trial Brief and being ready to resume trial, thus also objecting to the approach of re-starting the trial with the least contentious evidence (for example so-called crime base witnesses), postponing calling evidence directly related to the accused Merhi to a later stage of the proceedings. In general, the Trial Chamber seemed to be suggesting that this is the approach they are currently considering, an approach that would not be out of line with the Prosecution’s approach so far in presenting its evidence. The Prosecution has started its case by calling mostly crime base witnesses, victims and experts in relation to the explosion and forensic investigations after the attack. The Prosecution indicated it would not oppose such a phased approach and suggested to identify groups of witnesses to start with after the resumption.
The Chamber further set a deadline of 24 April 2014 for the Merhi Defence to provide a Rule 161 notice in relation to five Prosecution expert witnesses – that is its position on the expert report and his or her expertise, and its wish to cross-examine the expert. These five experts are (largely) uncontested by the other four Defence teams. This also suggests that the Chamber is thinking of the possibility to call these five experts relatively soon. After deliberations the Chamber further ordered the Merhi Defence to file its Pre-Trial Brief by Monday 26 May 2014, giving the Defence significantly less time than requested. A Pre-Trial Conference will be held on Monday 16 June, with another status conference to be held before that time, that is some time in early May (written reasons for these orders will follow in due course). It’s very likely that the trial will resume soon after the Pre-Trial Conference.