A special UN-backed court probing the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a 2005 Beirut bomb attack said Wednesday it will try four Hezbollah members in absentia.
"The trial chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has decided to try the four men accused of the 14 February 2005 attack in their absence," The Hague-based court said in a statement.
"The trial chamber concluded that all reasonable steps have been taken to secure the appearance of the accused and to notify them of the charges against them," it added.
The STL sent arrest warrants for Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Anaissi and Assad Sabra to Lebanese authorities on June 30, and Interpol issued a "red notice" in July.
Beirut has however failed to arrest them.
The four are accused of assassinating Hariri and 21 others in a massive suicide car bomb blast near a Beirut hotel on February 14, 2005, while the billionaire politician was on his way home.
"This announcement confirms that nothing will hinder the process of justice and the quest for the truth," said MP Aammar Houry, a member of the pro-Western opposition bloc headed by Hariri's son and former prime minister Saad Hariri.
"This court is strong and unwavering," he told AFP.
There was no immediate reaction from Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group, which dominates the Lebanese government and is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington.
The tribunal said on November 23 it was waiting for information from Beirut on measures taken to arrest the suspects and for a report from the prosecutor's office before taking a decision on a trial in absentia.
The trial chamber received the prosecution's confidential report in December, STL spokesman Marten Youssef said.
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"The trial chamber examined numerous documents from the tribunal's prosecutor and the Lebanese prosecutor-general, which detail the steps taken by the Lebanese authorities to apprehend the accused and inform them about the proceedings," the STL statement said.
"These efforts included multiple attempts by the Lebanese authorities to find the accused at their last known residences, places of employment, family homes and other locations," it added.
It said a trial in absentia was "a last resort to ensure the pursuit of justice is not paralysed by those who choose to abscond".
Defence lawyers are now to be assigned to the accused and if they wished to participate, they could appoint their own counsel, the court said, with a pre-trial judge to set a tentative date for the trial.
Ayyash, 48 and Badreddine, 50, face charges of "committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device" and homicide, while Anaissi, 37, and Sabra, 35, face charges of conspiring to commit the same acts.
The prosecution accuses Badreddine of "being the overall controller of the attack".
"Ayyash coordinated the assassination team that was responsible for the physical perpetration of the attack," it said.
"Anaissi and Sabra, in addition to being conspirators, prepared and delivered a false-claim-of-responsibility video, which sought to blame the wrong people," the prosecution said.
A previous Beirut government led by Saad Hariri cooperated with the tribunal, but in January Hezbollah toppled his coalition, largely over its support for the tribunal.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the STL as a US-Israeli conspiracy and vowed that no member of Hezbollah would ever be found or arrested.
The STL is the only international court that has a mandate to try suspects in absentia.
Created by a 2007 UN Security Council resolution at Lebanon's request, the STL opened its doors in 2009 and is tasked with trying those suspected of responsibility for Hariri's assassination.