Lebanon Hariri Tribunal to Try Hezbollah Suspects in Absentia

Lebanese militant group denies four of its men were involved in the 2005 bombing that killed ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A judge at the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Monday asked for four fugitive Hezbollah suspects to be tried in absentia.

The Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah has denied any role in the 2005 bombing which killed Hariri, a billionaire Sunni Muslim politician, and 21 other people on the Beirut seafront and has said it will refuse to allow any of the suspects to be arrested.

Hariri, Nasrallah - AP

Hariri's killing plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises and assassinations that led to clashes in May 2008, dragging the country to the brink of conflict in a country still scarred by its 1975-1990 civil war.

Pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who is responsible for ensuring the trial is prepared fairly, asked the Hague-based court to "determine whether proceedings in absentia should be considered."

Under the tribunal's rules, judges can consider whether to start a trial without the suspects being present if they have not been arrested within 30 days of the indictment's public advertisement.

The suspects were named in July as Mustafa Amine Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah figure and brother-in-law of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh, as well as Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra.

Warrants for their arrest were issued by the tribunal the previous month but Lebanon told the court in August that it had been unable to track any of them down.

However, in an interview with Time magazine, a man who identified himself as one of the suspects, said that same month that the authorities knew where he lived but were unable to arrest him.

Hezbollah, both a political movement and guerrilla army, toppled the government of Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, in January after he resisted calls to renounce the tribunal.

Hezbollah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has dismissed the indictments as a failed attempt to sow strife and bring down Lebanon's new Hezbollah-backed government and in July said the tribunal was a tool of U.S. and Israeli policy.

The court's trial chamber will now have to decide whether the trial can start without the suspects present.

The court's registrar, Herman von Hebel, said last week he expected a decision by early November on whether to proceed with a trial in absentia and that such a trial could then start in the second half of next year.

Trials at international war crimes courts court often take several years to be completed.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon would appoint defense counsel if the trial were to start without the suspects present.