Obama proposes in abstentia trial for Hizballah
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are determined to bring Hizballah officials to justice for their involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut five years ago – even after they toppled the Lebanese government by their ministers' walkout Wednesday, Jan. 12. If a transitional government in Beirut declares the international tribunal – STL – invalid and refuses to honor its summonses for Hizballah security officials, Washington intends to obtain authorization for trying Hizballah suspects in absentia, debkafile's Washington sources report.
Hizballah and its Iranian backers would be cornered into deciding between intensifying the crisis in Lebanon or accepting international isolation.
Saad Hariri's government fell while he was closeted with Obama in the White House Wednesday. He flew out of Washington and decided to stop over Thursday in Paris.
Last month, the administration assigned Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, to exploring with the United Nations the possibility of staging a trial in abstentia for Hizballah defendants refusing to appear in court. This procedure would break new ground in that it would make it possible for the first time to try missing defendants accused of assassination and terrorism.
The Hizballah case would therefore provide a landmark for trying fugitive leaders of Al Qaeda, Taliban and other radical Islamic terrorist organizations with known identities. International arrest warrants would override claims by countries like Pakistan and Iran that the whereabouts of wanted defendants are unknown. In this way, Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and others could be brought to justice in their absence on the basis of US and other intelligence data.
Our Washington sources report that the administration decided on this course after being convinced that
Special Lebanon Tribunal Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare had solid evidence against at least six high-ranking Hizballah security and intelligence officers – over and above records of cell phone conversations they made during the commission of the Hariri assassination in February 2005. In addition to those records, the international prosecutor has also obtained testimony from witnesses and documents which it has kept under close wraps until now.
The Obama administration believes that after Bellemare submits the results of his investigation and conclusions to the STL Pre-Trial Judge Daniel Fransen, the judge will issue a brief, dry statement saying that the investigation has concluded and its findings have been submitted and are now under his review – without revealing their content.
It will then be up to the judge to decide how long he needs to study the file and when to issue extradition warrants. This will give Washington time to have the trial in absentia procedure approved by the bodies responsible for the international tribunal.
The Lebanese crisis which erupted dramatically Wednesday, Jan 12 (click here for the debkafile report which first broke the story) may therefore drag on for months.
For fear of further Hizballah violence, our sources in Beirut report that the members of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's close circle started taking precautions in the last week of December. Many of them took advantage of the holiday season to send their families out of the country to the US or Europe on "extended vacations" or in remote corners of Lebanon. Bodyguards were hurriedly hired.