|The tribunal will thrash out what constitutes an act of terrorism and other legal issues [EPA]
Judges and lawyers at a United Nations-backed tribunal set up to try suspects in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, have begun discussions on how to define the crime of "terrorism" as listed in a draft indictment.
A hearing at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Monday aimed to clarify laws that the court will apply when trying those allegedly responsible for the 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed al-Hariri and 22 other people.
"Today's proceedings show that Lebanon, a proud founding member of the United Nations, is set for a course of judicial accountability through the rule of law," Antonio Cassese, the presiding judge, said as the hearing opened in Leidschendam near The Hague.
"This hearing signals an important moment for the life of the tribunal."
But he stressed that the hearing was of a legal nature and would not deal with the facts of the case. It would instead allow the court to thrash out "a set of legal imperatives to deal with human tragedies".
Cassese said that Daniel Fransen, the pre-trial judge, had submitted 15 legal questions for the appeals chamber to clarify, related to an indictment filed under seal in January by Daniel Bellemare, a prosecutor in the case.
Fransen is tasked with confirming the indictment before any arrest warrants can be issued in connection with the February 14, 2005 assassination.
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Philips, reporting from Leidschendam, said that Monday's discussions were likely to continue for weeks.
"It is the beginning of some sort of judicial process - it had merely been an investigation - but it does not mean that a trial is imminent. That may still be many months away," he said.
Geraldine Coughlan, a journalist based in The Hague, told Al Jazeera: "Indictments are expected to be issued this month, these could be confirmed without being made public ... and the trial can be expected within a year."
The charges are thought to include terrorism and conspiracy, and the indictment itself has been highly sensitive as members of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah are expected to be accused.
Hezbollah denies any role in the killings and has denounced the UN-backed investigation calling it a US-Israeli plot.
By clarifying legal issues now, the court hopes to speed up the path to its first trial, expected to begin later this year with or without a suspect in custody.
Unlike other international courts, the al-Hariri tribunal can hold trials in absentia if suspects cannot be arrested.
International lawyers have wrangled for years without arriving at a single definition for the crime of terrorism, but prosecutors and defence lawyers at the tribunal agreed on Monday to apply the definition as stated in Lebanese law, which the tribunal already uses.
"There is no reason to go further and create an overarching, worldwide, universal definition," Iain Morley, a lawyer for the prosecution, said.
But he sought to refine the definition they will use at future trials, arguing that it was unnecessary to prove a political motive for a terrorist act.
He proposed his own definition of terrorism as an act by which "a substantial section of the public reasonably and significantly fears more than momentarily from the present onward indiscriminate personal harm".
The hearing will include submissions from the tribunal's defence office, which was created to protect the rights of defendants.
Other topics under discussion include what constitutes a conspiracy, how to define intentional murder and whether suspects should face more than one charge based on the same alleged crime - so-called cumulative or alternative charging.