The Special Tribunal of Lebanon Wednesday was marked by defense lawyers bickering over witness scheduling, underscoring the protracted nature of the nearly two-year trial to prosecute those involved in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In lieu of hearing from a witness, whose testimony it had postponed following a defense request, the prosecution resorted to presenting ancillary documentary evidence, primarily related to a 2004 furniture purchase by defendant Hassan Merhi, to establish his alleged ownership of a purple network number (Purple 231) used to help plot the assassination.
The tribunal had heard a senior manager from the furniture manufacturer attest last month to the November 2004 deliveries to Merhi’s Burj al-Barajneh home. Merhi allegedly used both Purple 231 and a “family” mobile number shared with his wife and sons in calls related to the order and delivery of mattresses and bedding.
The prosecution presented 14 additional documents Wednesday to reinforce its claim that both numbers belonged to Merhi. These included subscription records attesting to the phone numbers used by the furniture companies and delivery drivers involved in the purchase.
While the family mobile number was primarily in contact with the retailers and drivers during the period in question, Purple 231 was used in three calls. While Merhi’s lawyer Mohamed Aouini did not dispute evidence concerning the family phone number, he repeatedly challenged the attribution of Purple 231 to his client, saying the two lines had neither interacted with the same phone numbers nor each other.
This led several judges to ask the prosecution to clarify the connection between the Merhi family number and Purple 231. While the prosecutor repeatedly deferred the answer to a witness’ forthcoming testimony, she was pushed to make some brief remarks.
While Aouini had said Merhi had never used Purple 231 to call his family mobile number, she said there had in fact been one call in September 2003. She noted the prosecution was not interested in co-locating the two numbers, but rather, using the family mobile number to prove Merhi owned Purple 231. Furthermore, a green network number allegedly used by Merhi had been co-located with Purple 231.
Ultimately, Judge Nicola Lettieri blasted the prosecution’s ongoing presentation of evidence as “fragmented,” noting it often stopped short of explaining crucial connections and instead, deferred to forthcoming testimony. Senior trial counsel Alexander Milne acknowledged the judge’s concerns, conceding the prosecution’s case was a complex “jigsaw puzzle.” He raised the idea of presenting summaries at appropriate points in the tribunal to help consolidate the judges’ understanding of the case.
The prosecution also briefly presented witness statements by its investigator Toby Smith, regarding a protected witness who had provided professional services to the wife of defendant Salim Ayyash. Client records listed two contact numbers for Ayyash’s wife – a personal mobile phone ending in the digits “165” (PMP 165) and a landline ending in “696,” both which the prosecution alleged were also used by Ayyash.
Moreover, the prosecution argued that from 2004-2005, calls were made between the protected witness and other personal numbers it attributed to Ayyash. PMP 165, PMP 170 and Blue 233 – all allegedly held by Ayyash – also connected to a cell tower that provided coverage to the witness’ office location on days of the wife’s appointments.
Nearly an hour over the course of the day was spent dealing with protestations from the lawyers representing defendants Merhi, Hassan Oneissi and Mustafa Badreddine over the scheduling of four prosecutorial witnesses set to appear within the next week. The lawyers insisted on more time to prepare for cross-examination, given the relatively short notice.
The exasperated lead Judge David Re advised defense counsel to be more nimble and flexible, as the prosecution had repeatedly accommodated their requests for delays. He noted the witnesses in question were minor and should not require extensive preparation time, especially in the hands of experienced counsel. At the same time, Re reserved his decision on the matters, asking the prosecution to try to rejig its schedule and assist the defense on contacting witnesses they had been unable to reach.
The prosecution said Tuesday that it expected 187 additional witnesses to testify. Combined with the defense’s repeated delays, the prosecution’s generally plodding presentation, and its constantly rotating cast of inexperienced trial counsel (in the last month, the prosecution has had four lawyers lead questioning for the first time), the prognosis for a speedy and efficient trial seems dim.