The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is set to open the trial in absentia on Thursday against the Hezbollah defendants alleged to have assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and killed 21 others on February 14, 2005.

To date, the case has riled, divided and inflamed already hot disputes between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite population, with Sunnis demanding justice and Hezbollah claiming the case was pushed forward by Western countries trying to reduce and besmirch its name (even though the court was formed with Lebanon’s consent.) The hearing is expected to garner massive international interest and will be broadcast in English, Arabic and French.

Also, on Tuesday the STL is set to hear its Prosecutor’s request to add a fifth defendant to the indictment, Hassan Habib Merhi, adding him to the four previously announced defendants – senior Hezbollah figure Mustafa Amine Badreddine (relative of the killed notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh), Salim Ayyash, Hussein Hassab Oneissi and Sassad Hassan Sabra.

Despite years of attempts to locate the defendants, including visits to their known residences, meetings with village elders from their home-villages and meetings with Hezbollah representatives, none of these men have yet been found.

In some cases, officers of the court, trying to serve the indictment to defendants, were prevented from doing so by Hezbollah security or only allowed to do so at a later date – when no one was home.

Ultimately, the court found that advertising and media stories had reached nearly the entire adult population of Lebanon, and considered all defendants on notice of the case and in willful violation of the obligation to appear in court.

The STL is a tribunal of international character established on March 1, 2009, with headquarters on the outskirts of The Hague, the Netherlands as well as an office in Beirut.

Its primary reason for being established was to hold trials for persons accused of carrying out the attack in the Hariri assassination.

The opening day of the trial is expected to start with the prosecutor giving an opening statement – to contextualize the case – as well as a statement by the legal representatives of the victims participating in the proceedings and the defense.

The opening statements are expected to take a few days and are noteworthy both in the participation of a victims’ representative (not a regular occurrence in criminal cases that usually only include prosecution and defense) and in that the defense counsel was appointed by the court – since no defendants ever accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

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