The defence chief of a special UN-backed court probing the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri asked judges Friday to lift arrest warrants against four Hezbollah members accused of the killing.
Lawyer Francois Roux's request came as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) mulled a possible trial in absentia for the operatives of the Iran-backed Shiite militia.
They are accused of having killed Hariri and 22 others in a car bomb blast in 2005.
"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 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.
So far however, Beirut has 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, as the politician was on his way home.
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.
"Before we embark on this expensive exercise costing millions of dollars, it has to be clear that we have reached a last resort," Morley argued.
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Beirut's failure to arrest the four suspects stemmed from uncertainty "as to what their powers are and what can be done", he added.
"The Lebanese authorities have duly and diligently set about to serve the arrest warrants, which is not the same as arresting the person," Morley said.
However, he added, "we haven't reached a point where we have exhausted all investigative efforts".
A previous Beirut government, led by Hariri's son Saad, cooperated with the tribunal, but in January Hezbollah toppled that Western-backed coalition, largely over its support for the special 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.
On Friday, he accused the United States 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 funds to UNESCO after members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.
"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.
Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by Washington.
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", according to a summary of the indictment.
"Ayyash coordinated the assassination team that was responsible for the physical perpetration of the attack," it added.
"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.
The STL was created by a 2007 UN Security Council resolution at Lebanon's request. It opened its doors in 2009, tasked with trying those suspected of responsibility for Hariri's assassination.