Jun 26, 2014

Witness Mr. Shadi Saadeddine (25 and 26 June 2014)

Witness Mr. Shadi Saadeddine (PRH 499)

On 25 and 26 June, the next Prosecution witness was called to the stand. Also for Mr. Shadi Saadeddine (PRH 499) the Prosecution had previously submitted a so-called Rule 155 statement (this Rule allows for the admission of written statements in lieu of oral testimony). This witness also testified from Beirut through video-link, but without any protective measures.

In February 2005, at the time of the assassination, the witness was an adjutant in the Internal Security Forces (ISF) of Lebanon. On 14th February, he went to the crime scene and was present when vehicles were removed from the crime scene, though he does not know who authorised the removal of those vehicles. At the crime scene, Mr. Saadeddine was tasked with inspecting some of the damaged buildings in the area of the crime scene; of which he prepared a report that is exhibited to the proceedings.

(Mr. Andreas O'Shea, defence legal consultant for Mr. Merhi)

In cross-examination by Mr. Andreas O'Schea for defendant Mr. Merhi, the witness testified that he had not dealt with any issues relation to explosions prior to 2005, and that he did not have qualifications in engineering. The witness examined several buildings in the area, and in relation to the St. Georges Hotel, the witness did not inspect that building himself. In regard to the other buildings that Mr. Saadeddine did inspect, he wrote down a list of the damages that he observed, and in some cases noted that the inspection of the damage required experts. The witness was merely asked by the investigating judge to make an assessment of the damages on the outside of the buildings, and not to make an expert assessment of them. He had indicated clearly on several occasions in his report that the damage done should be properly examined by experts. He refused to admit in response to Mr. O'Shea's suggestion that he was inadequately trained to execute the task he had been given by the investigating judge.

(Mr. Shadi Saadeddine, witness)

Mr. O'Shea went to great lengths to create doubt as to the professionalism of the investigations conducted at the crime scene on and following 14 February 2005. However, the witness did not give him much, and Presiding Judge Re at some point intervened, stating that Mr. O'Shea's line of questioning were not very helpful to the Chamber.

The next witness will be called next week Tuesday.

Jun 25, 2014

Evidence given by PRH450, an officer within the Lebanese military police (24 and 25 June 2014)

The first witness after the resumption of trial at the STL, PRH450, an officer within the Lebanese military police, provides a very small and seemingly uncontested contribution to the Prosecution’s case. His evidence-in-chief, a statement originating from the Lebanese investigation case file, has already been tendered pursuant to Rule 155 (see the Trial Chamber’s decision of 30 January 2014). Mr Alexander Milne, senior trial attorney for the Prosecution, reads a summary of his statement into the record: witness PRH450 was present at the crime scene after the explosion. On 21 February 2005 he found a burned body under a car, above which he had seen some blow flies.

The Prosecution does not have any further questions for the witness, but the Defence for Mr Badreddine has indicated that it is challenging his evidence, and counsel for Mr Sabra has requested “to cross-examine PRH450 on the basis that his testimony is capable of providing evidence relevant to the Defence making its case” (see also the decision of 30 January 2014). Mr Andreas O’Shea, legal consultant for the Defence for Mr Merhi, is however the first to cross-examine the witness. Witness PRH450 is testifying via video-conference link from the Beirut office, and as protective measures apply, his face is not shown on the screen.

Witness PRH450 seems evasive in answering the questions put to him in cross-examination, and has very little knowledge on the investigations after the bomb explosion of 14 February 2005. Obviously the events occurred a long time ago, but PRH450 was a judicial investigator within the Lebanese military police at that time, and according to the Defence for Mr Merhi by virtue of his position he knows more than he is saying. His recollection of the events is limited: the witness went more than two times to the crime scene but does not remember the exact amount of times; also he does not clearly remember the circumstances concerning the replacement of the investigative judge in charge of the explosion. Further he is vague about his recollection of meetings between the various institutions at the office of the investigative judge to coordinate the investigations.

The witness explains this by the fact that he was not entrusted with any specific assignment in relation to this specific crime scene, but that he was just asked by Judge Fahd to accompany him. The witness does confirm that the first to be done at the crime scene was the removal of any injured persons or bodies. He does not have any explanation as to why this body was only found seven days after the explosion, although there were circumstances that made the work more difficult, including the size of the crime scene and the weather.

Counsel for Mr. Badreddine, Mr Edwards, is next to cross-examine the witness, and focuses on the events of 14 February 2005. On that day the witness was asked to accompany the judges to the crime scene. He had never seen before a bigger explosion or a more chaotic crime scene. The witness is shown video footage taken on 14 February 2005, which confirms the chaos at the crater.

[print screens of video footage shown to PRH450]

Mr Edwards suggests to the witness that although the area is cordoned off with yellow tape, there are dozens of people present at the crime scene, thus suggesting the possibilities for tampering of evidence. The witness replies that on 14 February the investigative judge ordered the crime scene to be sealed off, and no unauthorised people were allowed access to the crime scene after that.

Mr Philippe Larochelle, counsel for Mr Oneissi, asks the witness about his phone calls during the day of the explosion, a theme that fits well with the Prosecution’s case. The witness does not have any recollection about this, although he does remember that after the explosion it was impossible to make mobile phone calls for some time. The witness provides the parties with his telephone number, which the Defence for Mr Oneissi will use to obtain the telephone records of the witness on 14 February 2005. Although the Prosecution challenges the relevance of this evidence, Mr Larochelle explains that the defence wishes to check whether these records support the evidence by PRH450 on his movements on that day, which is relevant for the credibility of the witness, but also relevant to show the unreliability of the phone network and thus the evidence used by the Prosecution to implicate the accused. If these investigative steps by the defence will lead to the need to recall this witness remains to be seen.

Jun 19, 2014

Merhi defence opening statement

Today, Mr Aouini, counsel for fifth defendant Hassan Habib Merhi, held his opening statement in response to yesterday's opening statement by the Prosecution (see here for our blog post on yesterday's proceedings).

Hassan Habib Merhi (Photo: BBC)

Mr. Aouini started off by saying that he wanted to extend his deepest sympathy to the victims of the 14 February 2005 assassination on former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others. He stressed that he does not question their suffering and their pain, indicating that "we appear here for the sole purpose of uncovering the truth" and, "for the advancement of reconciliation among the Lebanese people".

This latter statement is interesting, that it is one of defence counsel's objectives to contribute to reconciliation in Lebanon, which normally is not one of the primary concerns for counsel for the defence. At a later stage, Mr Aouini indicated that his task is to safeguard the rights of the defendant, and acting with the idea that at a later stage, the defendant may appear before this tribunal. As we have observed on a previous occasion (see our previous blog post on in absentia trials), it will be interesting to see throughout these in absentia proceedings how defence counsel will interpret their role for their clients that they've never been in contact with. Will they merely challenge the Prosecution case, or will they bring forward their own, alternative theories?

The main part of Mr Aouini's opening statement was spent on stressing the inequality between on the one hand, the defence for Merhi's team and the Prosecution who has had nine years to investigate, and on the other hand between Merhi's defence team and the defence teams for the other accused persons, who had significantly more time to prepare for the proceedings. Although this indeed seems a valid point, this has been raised on several occasions before the judges and has been decided upon (see here for the Appeals Chamber decision). It is an important issue for the Merhi defence, and it was to be expected that counsel would highlight this during his opening statement.

The proceedings will continue next week with the continuation of Prosecution witnesses who will testify either in court in Leidschendam or through video link from Beirut. 

Jun 18, 2014

Prosecution's case against Mr Merhi

Today the proceedings at the Lebanon Tribunal were all about the case against the accused Mr Merhi. Mr Merhi is alleged to have been part of the same conspiracy as the other accused in the case against Ayyash et al. As the joinder of Mr Merhi has taken place after the commencement of trial, the Prosecution gave an opening statement exclusively dealing with its case against Mr Merhi (click here and here for the transcripts of the initial opening statement of the Prosecution given in January). During the proceedings, one victim was present in the courtroom, the wife of the late Mr Fuleihan, who was part of the convoy that included Hariri, and who died because of severe burning injuries caused by the explosion.

The Prosecution started its opening statement by discussing the bomb explosion that killed Hariri and other members of his convoy, at the same time killing and injuring many bystanders. In the coming weeks, the Prosecution will call further forensic and DNA experts dealing with the explosion and its consequences.

The Prosecution subsequently focused on the anticipated evidence that is most related to Mr Merhi. According to the Prosecution’s case, four vital tasks were required for the completion of the conspiracy aimed at committing the terrorist act that killed Hariri: (i) identifying the location where the explosion should be detonated; (ii) gathering information about Hariri’s movement; (iii) preparing the bomb; and (iv) creating the false claim of responsibility for the attack. The nature of the conspiracy was sufficiently complex to require a division of labour and a hierarchy in its membership, and extensive and coordinated preparation was needed for this attack, so the Prosecution claims.

Mr Merhi played a significant and leading role in this operation, although it's the Prosecution's case that Mr Badreddine coordinated Mr Ayyash and Mr Merhi. Mr Merhi was only responsible for the fourth task (the false claim of responsibility), which included identifying a candidate for the false claim, befriending the potential candidate Mr Abu Adass and luring him away from his family, preparing a tape and a letter with the false claim and providing these to the Lebanese media after the attack.

For the time period from 1 October 2004 until 14 February 2005, the Prosecution has divided the conspiracy into five phases; the following slide shows Merhi’s responsibilities in these phases:

The Prosecution then explained the relevance of the data on phone networks - the main evidence that is linking the accused to the bomb explosion – for the Merhi case: Mr Merhi had two different phones that can be used to connect him to the conspiracy: Green 071 (from 24 September 2004 until 7 February 2005) and Purple 231 (from 19 December 2004 until 14 February 2005). Mr Merhi is connected to Mr Badreddine and Mr Ayyash through the green phone network, and to Mr Sabra and Mr Oneissi through the purple phone network. The specific characteristics of these phone networks or groups, who communicated through these phones, and where and when these phones went - this is all important for the Prosecution’s case that with the use of these phones the conspiracy was organised. See the following slide used during the Prosecution’s presentation, which contains the distinctive features of the green phone network.

The Prosecution continued to provide extensive detail about the phone data evidence it will present to prove that Mr Merhi, Mr Sabra, and Mr Oneissi cooperated as a team in arranging the abduction of Mr Abu Adass, the preparation of the false claim, and the spreading of the false claim through the media. This included a number of maps showing the locations of phone calls by the green and purple phone networks, from which according to the Prosecution the involvement of these phones, and thus the accused, in the conspiracy can be inferred.

As a last important aspect of the case against Mr Merhi (and the other accused for that matter), the Prosecution shortly discussed how these phones can be attributed to Mr Merhi. Again this will need to be inferred, this time from a comparison in the characteristics and locations of phones purple 231 and green 071 with a phone that can be directly connected to the Merhi family through official documentation, including a tax form submitted by Mr Merhi. Finally, the Prosecution describes Mr Merhi as a ‘grey man’ with a family with five children but no recorded employment, who does most of his payments in cash. This would also confirm the Prosecution’s theory on the criminal activities of Mr Merhi. Tomorrow we will hear what the Defence for Mr Merhi has to say in response.

Jun 16, 2014

The resumption of the proceedings at the STL: Pre-Trial Conference of 16 June 2014

With the opening statement of the Prosecution in relation to the accused Merhi scheduled for this Wednesday, today a pre-trial conference was held to discuss the procedural aspects of the resumption of trial. Because of the joinder with the case against the accused Merhi, no evidence has been called in the Ayyash case since February of this year. Scheduling issues were the main topic of today’s conference. After the Prosecution’s opening statement this Wednesday, the Defence for Merhi will give its opening statement on Thursday.

The first witness after the resumption of trial is scheduled to appear next week, on Tuesday 24 June. However, in relation to many of the witnesses to be called in the coming weeks, it remains unsure whether the Prosecution will be able to arrange their presence in the courtroom in Leidschendam. Therefore, it is to be expected that most of them will testify via video-conference link. Further, the Merhi Defence is still opposing the calling of a number of Prosecution expert witnesses at this stage of the proceedings, as its defence experts have not yet finished their analyses.

Other issues discussed were (i) upcoming guidelines on the inspection of exhibits by the parties, including the need to request prior authorisation from the Chamber by parties wishing to unseal or remove exhibits; and (ii) on-going problems regarding the cooperation between the government of Lebanon and the defence teams that are seeking to obtain specific documentation.

After several of these procedural hearings in the last few months, with the opening statements of Wednesday and Thursday, the Lebanon Tribunal will finally return to the substance of its main case.