Meet­ing the vic­tims be­hind the tech­ni­cal STL case

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Vic­to­ria Yan

BEIRUT: “Many Le­banese crit­i­cize the tri­bunal, say­ing it will amount to noth­ing,” Maria al-Kasti said, “but we feel that the court will find jus­tice. We have to trust in it. It’s the only hope we have.”

By Wed­nes­day, Kasti and Lil­ian Khal­louf had re­sumed their ev­ery­day rou­tines – com­mut­ing back and forth to their jobs in Beirut, tak­ing care of their re­spec­tive fam­i­lies.

But just a few days prior, both women had trav­eled to Lied­schen­dam, a small town in the Nether­lands, to re­count their mem­o­ries of the chain of events on Feb. 14, 2005 – a day trag­i­cally ce­mented in their minds and in the col­lec­tive mem­ory of Le­banon.

Over the course of six re­cent hear­ings of the Spe­cial Tri­bunal for Le­banon, des­ig­nated vic­tims – among them Kasti and Khal­louf – gave tes­ti­mony on the dev­as­tat­ing knock-on con­se­quences of the 2005 Beirut bomb­ing that tar­geted for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Rafik Hariri, killing him and 21 oth­ers.

Dur­ing th­ese ses­sions, ac­counts of trau­matic searches for miss­ing fam­ily mem­bers, al­leged neg­li­gence on the part of the gov­ern­ment and the ef­fects of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der shifted the trial cham­ber’s fo­cus away from po­lit­i­cal con­spir­acy and to­ward the re­al­i­ties of per­sonal loss.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence [of giv­ing tes­ti­mony] … it was not easy,” Kasti told The Daily Star. “The build­ing it­self is in­tim­i­dat­ing: there are no win­dows. It is a feel­ing I can’t ex­plain. You feel afraid.”

Khal­louf re­called hav­ing taken a seda­tive the day of her tes­ti­mony, in or­der to calm her nerves. But the un­ex­pected length of an­other vic­tim’s tes­ti­mony pushed her date back. When she fi­nally was able to speak, she re­called tes­ti­fy­ing for 15 min­utes, be­fore fi­nally feel com­fort­able.

“But, when they showed me images and footages of the bomb­ing, I was un­able to con­tain my­self.”

Kasti, too, said she was emo­tion­ally af­fected. “I tried my best to stay calm, but as soon as I left the room, I couldn’t stop cry­ing.”

At the time of the bomb­ing, the women worked side by side at the HSBC’s Down­town branch, just me­ters away from where a 2-ton bomb – de­signed to as­sas­si­nate Hariri and de­stroy his mo­tor­cade as it made its way along the Cor­niche – left a crater in the road. Both women suf­fered phys­i­cal in­juries from the blasts. Kasti, a mother of two, lost her abil­ity to taste and smell – an in­jury, the ef­fect of which, has per­co­lated through­out her life.

Khal­louf, also a mother of two, has en­dured chronic is­sues in­clud­ing se­vere dizzi­ness in times of stress.

While meet­ing with The Daily Star, the women’s com­po­sure be­lied the on­go­ing ob­sta­cles they face daily as a re­sult of the bomb­ing.

To­day, both Kasti and Khal­louf – who re­cently moved jobs, from HSBC to Blom Bank – have man­aged to con­tinue with their lives in as “nor­mal” a fash­ion as pos­si­ble, af­ter years of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. “Life goes on,” Khal­louf noted frankly.

The re­cent ses­sions in which Khal­louf, Kasti and mul­ti­ple other vic­tims gave tes­ti­mony marked a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the emo­tional reg­is­ter of the STL.

Shortly fol­low­ing the orig­i­nal in­dict­ments in 2011 of in­di­vid­u­als linked to Hezbol­lah, the party’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral Sayyed Has­san Nas­ral­lah de­clared that “No Le­banese gov­ern­ment will be able to carry out any ar­rests whether in 30 days, 30 years or even 300 years.”

Given Hezbol­lah’s re­fusal to com­ply with the trial, the four men who cur­rently stand ac­cused of the bomb­ing have been tried in ab­sen­tia – un­able to give their own ver­sion of events or present al­i­bis.

As a re­sult, the pros­e­cu­tion has re­lied on tech­ni­cal de­tails in or­der to make their case. With cel­lu­lar data hav­ing taken cen­ter stage, the trial has been ef­fec­tively stripped of any per­sonal el­e­ments.

The re­cent ses­sions fo­cus­ing on

tes­ti­mony given by vic­tims has rein­vig­o­rated both judges and lawyers hereto­fore swamped in the tech­ni­cal de­tails of the case, the le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the vic­tims, Peter Haynes, said.

“[The trial cham­ber has] been lis­ten­ing to fairly dry ev­i­dence for a long time and sud­denly to be re­minded what that case is about is very im­por­tant,” Haynes told The Daily Star. “There was a real sense in the en­tire tri­bunal build­ing that ev­ery­one was re-en­er­gized [af­ter hear­ing] the vic­tims’ case.”

The vic­tims’ tes­ti­mony given over the last two weeks – the first pre­sen­ta­tion of this side of the story in the course of the trial, which be­gan in 2014 – has been sem­i­nal for those af­fected by the bomb­ing. But de­spite the cathar­tic ef­fect of the re­cent ses­sions, the 72 in­di­vid­u­als clas­si­fied by the STL as vic­tims of the bomb­ing will now have to wait pa­tiently for the trial cham­ber to de­cide the fate of the four in­dicted in­di­vid­u­als.

While many of the vic­tims’ iden­ti­ties have been made pub­lic, oth­ers have opted to re­mained anony­mous, hold­ing on to their pro­tec­tive sta­tus.

“We visit [the vic­tims] two to three times a year in Beirut,” Haynes said. He added that this com­mu­ni­ca­tion

chan­nel would likely re­main open, de­spite his clients hav­ing made the fi­nal pre­sen­ta­tion of their case. “[The vic­tims] have their own des­ig­nated web­site, pri­vate to them, where they re­ceive reg­u­lar news­let­ters. We’re in con­tact reg­u­larly, and I an­tic­i­pate [be­ing] in Beirut in Oc­to­ber,” Haynes said.

Kiat Wei Ng, le­gal of­fi­cer to the LRV at the STL, told The Daily Star over email that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween STL of­fi­cers and vic­tims would not end fol­low­ing the con­clu­sion of the vic­tims’ case.

A long­time fol­lower of the STL pro­ceed­ings, hav­ing be­gun even be­fore work­ing as a le­gal of­fi­cer for the LRV, he has an ex­tended his­tory of en­gage­ment with the case.

“Through­out the years, I have got­ten to know them and we have built a re­la­tion­ship where they trust that the [vic­tim rep­re­sen­ta­tion] team will pro­tect their rights in the pro­ceed­ings,” he said via email.

“I have had the op­por­tu­nity to meet with al­most all the par­tic­i­pat­ing vic­tims and learn about their sto­ries and harms that they suf­fered due to the at­tack of Feb. 14, 2005,” he con­tin­ued.

He added: “The team com­mu­ni­cates with the par­tic­i­pat­ing vic­tims on an on­go­ing ba­sis, for var­i­ous rea­sons. I per­son­ally meet with them pe­ri­od­i­cally to up­date them about the case at the STL, but I also con­ducted in­ter­views with many of them to ob­tain wit­ness state­ments.”

From Beirut, Khal­louf and Kasti echoed the sen­ti­ments ex­pressed by their le­gal team – prais­ing their STL rep­re­sen­ta­tives for their ded­i­ca­tion to the cause.

“We al­ways meet with them, and that won’t stop de­spite [their pre­sen­ta­tion of the] case be­ing over,” Khal­louf said.

While Kasti and Khal­louf await the trial’s out­come – which they say STL of­fi­cials have sug­gested might be forth­com­ing next year – both par­tic­i­pat­ing vic­tims ac­knowl­edged that this would most likely be the end of the road in terms of their search for jus­tice.

“In Le­banon, it’s im­pos­si­ble to go to court and get any­thing done. Even if th­ese peo­ple are con­victed, they have power. There is no way we could get com­pen­sa­tion from the gov­ern­ment in this way,” Kasti said, speak­ing of the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing their case to a na­tional court, should the four sus­pects be found guilty.

“Plus, you have to pay for a lawyer and re­ally be mo­ti­vated to go af­ter [your rights]. In Le­banon, it doesn’t work like it does in other coun­tries,” Khal­louf said.

While the women’s faith in jus­tice at the na­tional level is quite low, both re­marked that com­pen­sa­tion is not their goal.

“It’s the truth, it’s the jus­tice, that we want,” Khal­louf said.

“This would be a bit of a re­lief. But of course, we can­not erase what hap­pened on that day. We will never for­get.”

Kasti and Khal­louf were work­ing at a bank just me­ters from where the bomb det­o­nated in 2005.

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