A special court investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has met to discuss the possibility of beginning the trials of four defendants despite the fact that the men remain at large.
The defence head asked judges on Friday to lift or suspend the arrest warrants against the accused.
“The Defence office respectfully submits the Chamber should initiate proceedings aimed at lifting or suspending the arrest warrants against the accused,” Francois Roux told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
“The issuing of arrest warrants has led to the accused being unwilling to appear freely and voluntarily” before the tribunal, based in Leidschendam outside The Hague, said Roux.
“How can we even consider that the accused would want to go and consult their lawyers in their chambers in Beirut?” he asked.
The court proceedings ended without coming to a final decision. A decision is expected to be made by the end of the month.
Friday’s hearing at the STL in The Hague follows a statement by Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor, that Lebanese authorities had not had enough time to arrest the men.
Prosecutors are expected to tell judges it is too early to hold a trial in absentia and that authorities should be given more time to arrest the suspects.
“It is premature to initiate a trial in absentia,” Bellemare wrote in a document published by the Netherlands-based STL on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from The Hague, said both the prosecution and defence want to wait to hold the trial, but that the court could overrule them “in a sign, if you like, of its frustration”.
“They want to get this show on the road,” he said.
All four men are linked to Hezbollah, an important pillar in the March 8 Alliance, a coalition of Shia Muslim, Druze and Christian parties that currently controls Lebanon’s government.
They are accused of carrying out the February 2005 roadside bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others as Hariri’s motorcade moved down a seafront road in the centre of Beirut.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has dismissed the STL as a conspiracy between Israel and the US meant to sow sectarian strife and has vowed that no member of his movement will ever be found or arrested.
In a speech he was giving to commemorate Martyrs Day in Lebanon on Friday, Nasrallah accused the US of using double standards when it came to the UN-backed court and its attitude to UNESCO, the UN cultural organisation.
He saw no reason why Lebanon should be expected to contribute its share of the tribunal’s funding given Washington’s decision to cut off funds to the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO after members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.
“Isn’t the funding of UNESCO an international obligation for the US?” he said. “Why can it shirk its obligation and not Lebanon?”
“If Lebanon doesn’t fund this unconstitutional and illegal court, Feltman comes along and threatens sanctions,” he added, referring to Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
The Hezbollah-allied coalition’s control of government has also led to funding disputes with the tribunal, which has called on Lebanon to pay the 49 per cent share of the costs of running the court that was due at the end of October.
The STL is the only international court that has a mandate to try suspects in absentia. If it did so it would be the first such occurrence since the post-World War II Nazi trials at Nuremberg, Roux said.
But earlier a prosecutor told a five-judge bench a trial in absentia would be a “last resort”.
Not enough had been done to track and arrest the men, said senior trial prosecutor Iain Morley.
“A trial in absentia should be a last resort and not a first choice,” he argued.
He suggested judges allow three more months of investigations.
Lebanon’s previous government, led by Hariri’s son Saad, co-operated with the STL. But in January the opposition parites allied with Hezbollah toppled that Western-backed coalition, largely over its support for the tribunal.