STL Defense Chief Tells 'Fugitives' to Get Lawyer‎

Francois Roux, the head of the Defense Office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, urged Tuesday four Hizbullah members indicted in the 2005 assassination of ex-PM Rafik Hariri to quickly consult a lawyer.

Those wanted by the STL, which last week handed Lebanese authorities four arrest warrants for the Hariri murder, are now fugitives from international law, Roux noted.

"As of the moment the arrest warrants are issued, whoever is charged is no longer a free person and becomes a fugitive," Roux told Agence France Presse in an interview during a visit to Beirut.

"My only advice to those charged is that they consult a lawyer as soon as possible. Now is the time for defence." he said.

"Their families, friends, communities can protect them, but ... the only person who can now free the charged of the charges, and again render them free individuals, is a lawyer," said Roux.

The tribunal last week issued a sealed indictment for the assassination of Hariri, along with arrest warrants for four Lebanese.

Lebanese officials have confirmed the four are operatives of Hizbullah, including Mustafa Badreddine, a brother-in-law of Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

While Roux said he had come to Lebanon to be "close to those indicted," he denied he had been informed of the names on the arrest warrants.

He also urged anyone indicted by the STL -- the first international court with jurisdiction to try an act of terrorism -- to appoint a lawyer of their choice or contact his office, which had a list of 100 lawyers from 25 countries including Lebanon to provide defendants with court representation.

"The office of defense was set up to ensure defendants a fair trial, to give them arms in court equal to those of the prosecutor," he said, adding his "door is always open".

The STL has triggered a deep political crisis in Lebanon, leading to the collapse in January of the country's unity government.

Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday said he would never hand over the four members of his group, adding that the Netherlands-based court was heading for a trial in absentia.

The whereabouts of the four accused is unknown.

Nasrallah has repeatedly dismissed the tribunal as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy against his Shiite group, charging that Israel itself was behind the February 14, 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in Beirut.

Lebanon now has 30 days to find and arrest the four named in the warrants.

If no arrests are made, the court can publicize their names and call on the accused to surrender within a month, after which Roux can himself appoint lawyers from his office's list to represent defendants in absentia.

An absent defendant or his lawyer who appears before the tribunal at any point during or after the trial can also request a new trial. Defendants can also appear in court via video link.

Roux said he expected defense lawyers to begin building their cases by October and would need at least six months whether the accused came forward or not, noting the investigation leading to an indictment took six years.

While Roux ducked a question on whether he had been in contact with Hizbullah officials, he said he urged anyone with grievances against the STL to voice them before the court.

"I have heard that there are those who are contesting the credibility of the tribunal," he said. "One can criticize the tribunal in ... the press, but these debates must also be held in court.

"I have complete respect for political parties, which are necessary in any democratic society," he added. "Any party can make any declaration it wishes, that is their job.

"But at the end, individuals will be either sentenced or acquitted. It is the tribunal that will make this decision, and not political parties".

Source: Agence France Presse

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