AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The U.N.-backed Lebanon tribunal handed down a key procedural ruling on Wednesday to settle legal points as it considers whether to confirm a charge sheet over the assassination of former premier Rafik al-Hariri.
The ruling took place with Lebanon still seeking to form a new government after the militant Shi‘ite Hezbollah movement and its allies toppled the government of Hariri’s son, Saad al-Hariri, over his refusal to cut links with the tribunal.
In a unanimous ruling on Wednesday, court judges clarified several legal issues that will allow pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen to decide whether to confirm a draft indictment lodged by prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon last month.
If confirmed, the court could then issue summons or arrest warrants against the accused.
The court gave guidance on what definition of terrorism would apply, ruling that it would use Lebanon’s definition of terrorism as an act “intended to spread terror,” but also apply a broader international interpretation of the “means” of an attack given the transnational gravity of Hariri’s killing.
Presiding judge Antonio Cassese said that the court judges hope that Wednesday’s ruling “may help the tribunal take a firm, steady and rapid course in its pursuit of justice.”
“When trials proper commence and defendants face charges made by the prosecutor, the legal principles we have now set out ... will guide the action of the trial chamber,” Cassese said.
He added, however, that the “abstract answers” handed down might still need to be revisited at a later date.
The still-sealed draft indictment is expected to accuse Hezbollah members of involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Hezbollah denies any involvement and has warned anyone against taking action against its members.
It has also said that the priority of Lebanon’s new government should be to cut ties with the tribunal, end Lebanon’s contributions to its funding, and withdraw Lebanese judges from the court.
Cassese also said that Wednesday’s ruling should prove that tribunal intends to be “absolutely impartial, independent of any political pressure or interference.”
The Lebanon tribunal, the world’s first international court with jurisdiction over the crime of terrorism, was set up to try those accused over the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.
Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare sent an indictment on January 17 to pre-trial judge Fransen, who then posed to court judges 15 questions over definitions of terrorism, conspiracy and homicide and other issues such as criminal responsibility.
In January, the court initially said it would take Fransen at least six to 10 weeks to confirm the draft indictment, but this could take longer given the complex nature of the material.
Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; Editing by Dominic Evans