Meeting the victims behind the technical STL case
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.