BEIRUT (AP) — Four Hezbollah members indicted in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister cannot stay fugitives forever and should get lawyers, the defense chief of an international tribunal said Tuesday.
The suspects have until mid-September to contact the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Francois Roux, head of the court's defense office, told The Associated Press in an interview. After that, Roux said, the tribunal's judges will hold proceedings in absentia and he will appoint defense lawyers on their behalf.
"Families can protect them, communities can protect them, but a person cannot remain a fugitive for the rest of his life," Roux said.
The alleged role of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri threatens to trigger a potentially violent crisis in this Arab nation. The Shiite militant group denies any role in the killing of Hariri and vows never to turn over any of its members.
"All those who support the unjust decision to issue indictments — they support oppression, they hide the truth and justice," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's chief, said in a speech broadcast to followers on Tuesday. "(They) are hiding the real killer, which is Israel."
The debate over the indictments has polarized Lebanon's rival political factions, with Hezbollah and its allies pitted against a Western-backed bloc headed by Hariri's son, Saad. It also has deepened bitter tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon. Rafik Hariri was one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders.
Roux would not say if any of the men had contacted his office so far. He said he was confident that at least some of the suspects would come forward.
"My experience has shown, and I have 38 years of experience in political cases and trials, it tells me that I wouldn't be surprised if some people decided to contact a lawyer, but not all of them," Roux said.
One of the men named in the indictment, Mustafa Badreddine, has a storied history of militancy.
He is suspected of building the powerful bomb that blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans, mostly Marines, according to a federal law enforcement official and a book "Jawbreaker," by Gary Berntsen, a former official who ran the Hezbollah task force at the CIA.
The tribunal issued the indictments last week, more than six years after the massive truck bombing struck Hariri's motorcade along Beirut's waterfront, killing him and 22 others.
Hezbollah has amassed unprecedented political clout in the government this year, having toppled the previous administration in January when Saad Hariri — who was prime minister at the time — refused to renounce the tribunal investigating his father's death.
The new premier, Najib Mikati, was Hezbollah's pick for the post. He issued a vague promise last week that Lebanon would respect international resolutions as long as they did not threaten domestic security.
The ambiguous wording leaves room to brush aside the arrest warrants if street battles are looming.
The pro-Western bloc led by Hariri has slammed Mikati's position and vowed to try to topple his government unless he assures the country that he will abide by the tribunal's decisions.
Parliament began three days of contentious debate about the government's stance toward the tribunal on Tuesday, with MP Marwan Hamadeh accusing the prime minister of brushing off the indictments.
"You have a holy responsibility that will follow you, will chase you ... forever and ever," said Hamadeh, who survived a 2004 car bomb, and whose nephew, Gibran Tueni, a leading newspaper editor, was killed in a car bomb a year later.