The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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August 27, 2015

The Daily Star - Dispute at the STL over telecoms expert, August 27, 2015

Ned Whalley

Testimony before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was interrupted Wednesday by a dispute over the disclosure of documents related to the prosecution’s recruitment of telecommunications expert John Edward Philips. Philips was being questioned on the potential manipulation of cell phone evidence by defense counsel David Young, who represents the interests of defendant Assad Hassan Sabra, one of five defendants being tried in absentia for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.

The disagreement arose over a document that contained Philips’ reply to a letter from the office of the prosecutor regarding a quote for his services. Philips referred to the document when asked about ways in which call data might be manipulated, mentioning that there had been allegations in certain quarters that the data had been planted or otherwise falsified.

Asked the source of such allegations, Philips produced the correspondence, which contained a series of questions on areas where he might provide evidence and his detailed replies.

“I have not seen this document,” Young said, referring to the episode as a “serious disclosure failure.”

In the correspondence, Philips had touched on the limits of the usefulness of certain types of cell maps, as well as methods by which call data can be manipulated.

The prosecution maintained that there was nothing substantive in the letter that had not been disclosed elsewhere, and was adamant that it had no knowledge or belief that any of the call logs had been manipulated or fabricated. It stated that the question had only been broached to Philips as it believed the defense would attempt to cast such aspersions at trial.

But Young remained unsatisfied. “I am duty bound to make an application to defer any cross examination ... It would be inappropriate to continue when investigations need to be made.”

His application was supported by other defense counselors and ultimately granted by the judges. Up to that point, the preponderance of Young’s questions had been the ability to reliably and precisely locate a phone, with emphasis on the behavior of cell systems and anomalies in cell coverage.

Cell phones are programmed to monitor and switch onto a nearby signal should the one providing coverage weaken or go out of service. Scheduled maintenance, high call volume, and other network failures can prompt a phone to switch. It is this signal which is then reflected in call logs, reducing the accuracy with which the phone can be accurately placed. The cause and frequency of such failures was the subject of much of Philips’ testimony, but he emphasized that in his experience they were exceedingly rare.

Young placed great emphasis on the possibility of coverage failing due to high call volume, particularly in dense urban environments, alleging that the massive explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and a score of other people would have been just the type of event to overload networks in this way. He pointed to witnesses that had specifically testified that they had problems using their phones after the incident, which occurred around 1 p.m.

Philips conceded it was likely that this is precisely what had happened, but not until after the fact.

“The havoc wouldn’t have occurred until after the incident – unless people expected it.”

With cross examination halted, the prosecutor was instructed to re-examine Philips. As it revisited defense exhibits, Philips emphasized that although a phone could switch on up to six other signals, it did so based on their strength. This meant even during a local failure, a phone was highly likely to switch on to the next nearest cell site. The defense had emphasized on the number and geographic range of nearby signals in their presentation.

This portion of Philips’ testimony concluded with the end of the session, and the tribunal adjourned until Thursday morning, when it will hear further evidence from the prosecution.

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