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Trial in absentia, Fair trial, Special Tribunal for Lebanon


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | International Law


Since Nuremburg, no individual has been prosecuted in an international or internationalized court entirely in his or her absence. That may soon change. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is empowered to try defendants in absentia, has now confirmed its first indictment. While its trial in absentia procedures were met with concern and criticism from some quarters when they were first announced, reconsideration is warranted in light of subsequent judicial developments. The judges of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon have now established in their preliminary decisions an interpretive approach to the Tribunal’s Statute that is adamantly purposive. This purposive approach should lead the judges to apply the Tribunal’s groundbreaking trial in absentia provisions in a manner that is consistent with international human rights jurisprudence, thereby quelling most, if not all, of the prior criticism. This Article first clarifies the debate by disentangling different notions of trials in absentia and by outlining the circumstances under which such trials are considered to accord with modern human rights standards. It then re-evaluates the framework for trials in absentia before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in light of the Tribunal’s early jurisprudence, suggesting how the judges should interpret and apply these provisions in keeping with their prior case law. It ends with a more pragmatic evaluation of the costs and benefits of trials in absentia and cautions that such trials, while acceptable under the highest international standards of criminal justice, should be undertaken rarely, if at all.


This article predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.