The appointment of renowned Liberian journalist and lawyer as Solicitor General is certainly no mistake on the part of President George Manneh Weah. A prolific writer and speaker, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus has risen swiftly to enviable heights in the legal profession not only nationally but also internationally, breaking a couple of histories in how he gets recognized, decorated and admitted to prestigious legal bars and jurisdictions. The latest is his admission to the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon as investigator. The Analyst reports.
After sitting a 45-minute legal and judicial interview conducted by a 3-man panel set up by the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to review and critically assess his professional qualification, competence and his ability to make proper and adequate representation before the Tribunal, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus, Liberia’s Solicitor-General has been formally admitted to the Tribunal’s list of venerated, experienced and qualified counsel, making him the first and only Liberian lawyer ever to have achieved this.
To date, he is also the only legally certified Liberian lawyer qualified and listed on the website of the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, The Netherlands, as one of its counsel.
Cllr. Cephus applied to the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon in May, 2016, seeking to become one of its certified counsel either for the defence or the prosecution, after a string of admissions to other international criminal courts and tribunals but was advised that the Tribunal will review his application consistent with is admission procedures and standards and will get back him in due course.
However, after waiting for almost three years without any response, the Tribunal on May 16, 2019 communicated with Cllr. Cephus and advised him that he needed to sit an interview to be conducted by a 3-man panel purposely to test his understanding of international criminal law, professional qualification as a courtroom lawyer, legal perspicacity, competence and his ability to practice before the court and represent victims.
A review of the court’s records posted on its website shows that on May 30, 2019, an official of the Victims’ Participation Unit (VPU) Javier Ouko wrote: “Dear Cephus, I hope this email finds you well. Following your application to be included in the List of Legal Representatives for Victims participating in the proceedings, we are pleased to inform you that the Victims’ Participation Unit is now in the process of organizing interviews for the same. In this regard I bring to your attention Article 12(D) of the STL Directive on Victims’ Representation, a copy of which is attached, regarding the purpose of the interview.”
The VPU communicated added: “Given the time frame, availability of the Interview Panel and the logistics involved, the interviews have been scheduled to take place on 20 and 21 June 2019. Please be informed that the interviews will be conducted over the Skype or phone (if you do not have access to Skype) and therefore the time selected will accommodate the time difference accordingly. Please provide us with your Skype address and the phone number which should be used in this regard.”
The communication further noted: “I would appreciate if you could please confirm your availability for both days after which we will get back to you with further details on the exact time of your interview.”
And in conclusion, the Ouko wrote: “In order to finalize this process in a timely manner, please respond to this email providing your availability by COB Monday 03 June 2019. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require any clarification in this regard.”
Therefore, in full compliance with the Tribunal’s mandate, Cllr. Cephus wrote: “Words are inadequate to express as to how I feel to be selected amongst dozens of applicants to sit the interviews of the Tribunal regarding my professional competence and qualification to practice before such esteemed Tribunal and represent victims. I can assure you that I will live up to your expectation and when certified as qualified counsel of this prestigious court, my services to the defence or prosecution will be of great assets not only to victims and the court itself but also to the dispensation of international justice. Kindly accept, Mr. Registrar, the assurances of my highest esteem.”
Following the exchange of emails and the selection of June 20, 2019 by Cllr. Cephus as the date to sit the interview, Mr. Ouko again replied: “ Dear Cllr. Cephus, I hope this email finds you well. Please be informed that your interview with the Admission Panel will be held next week on Thursday 20 June 2019 via telephone. Please note that the interview will be conducted in English. The details of the interview are admission to the list of legal representatives for victims participation proceedings and the 3-man Panel will comprise Mr. Georges Assaf, Ms. Kinga Tibori and Mr. Sunil Pal and the interview will last for 45 minutes. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions. Wishing you success in your interview.”
Further review of the court’s records shows that in adherence to the court’s instructions, Cllr. Cephus sat the interview on June 20, 2019 at 12:07 P.M., and was grilled by the 3-man panel on the history of the court, the procedures in representing victims, victims’ protection strategy and defense, trial procedures, pre and post-trial challenges, how to engage and acquire the confidence of victims who do not speak English or any international language, the principle of confidentiality, among others.
At the end of the interview, the Liberian Solicitor-General was informed that the result of the interview will be released within one month and would be informed in due course.
However, on July 12, 2019, Mr. Sunil Pal Acting Chief of the Victims Participation Unit (VPU) of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon wrote Cllr. Cephus: “I am happy to announce that following your application for admission to the list of victims counsel at the STL and your interview that was held in June 2019, you have been added to the list of counsel who may be called upon to represent victims. Please be informed that the list of victims counsel will be published on the STL website… Thank you for your interest in the representation of victims at the STL.”
According to Article 4 of the statute the Special Tribunal (STL) and the national courts of Lebanon shall have concurrent jurisdiction. Within its jurisdiction, the Tribunal shall have primacy over the national courts of Lebanon. Article 4 further provides that: “ Upon the assumption of office of the Prosecutor, as determined by the Secretary-General, and no later than two months thereafter, the Special Tribunal shall request the national judicial authority seized with the case of the attack against Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others to defer to its competence. The Lebanese judicial authority shall refer to the Tribunal the results of the investigation and a copy of the court’s records, if any. Persons detained in connection with the investigation shall be transferred to the custody of the Tribunal.”
The Tribunal is located on the outskirts of The Hague, the Netherlands and also has an office in Beirut, Lebanon. Its primary mandate is to hold trials for the people accused of carrying out the attack of 14 February 2005 which killed 22 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, and injured many others.
The tribunal was established pursuant to UN Resolution 1757 following a request by the government of Lebanon to that august body. It is a hybrid independent, judicial organisation composed of Lebanese and international judges.
The tribunal has “jurisdiction over persons responsible for the attack of 14 February 2005 resulting in the death of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and in the death or injury of other persons” (Article 1, STL statute).
It also has jurisdiction over other attacks in Lebanon between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005 if it is proven that they are connected to the events of 14 February and are of similar nature and gravity. The mandate also allows the tribunal to have jurisdiction over crimes carried out on any later date, decided by the parties and with the consent of the UN Security Council, if they are connected to the 14 February 2005 attack.
because of his vast experience in both criminal prosecution and defence, Cllr. Cephus lie all qualified counsel certified by the Tribunal is listed in the Victims Participation Unit(VPU), meaning, he has met all of the qualification requirements of the Tribunal and would be allowed to practice before it and represent victims.
A victim according to the Tribunal’s statute is any “natural person who has suffered physical, material or mental harm as a direct result of an attack within the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.” This definition is found in Rule 2 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence (RPEs), while the Tribunal’s jurisdiction is defined in Article 1 of the STL Statute.
Meanwhile, messages of congratulations have been pouring in from around the world. In a sundry of emails, Cllr. Cephus has been warmly congratulated by his colleagues from the International Criminal Court(ICC), The Hague, the Association of European Lawyers—International Lawyers Network(AEA), Justinian Lawyers(JL), the European Criminal Bar Association(ECBA), European Fraud and Compliance Lawyers(EFCL), the International Law Association(ILA), the Association of Defence Counsel Practicing Before All International Courts and Tribunals (ADC-ICT), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights(ACtHPR) in Arusha, Tanzania, and specifically from Cllr. Arthur T. Johnson.
In a special message sent to Cllr. Cephus upon receipt of the news, Cllr Johnson writes: “I am a living witness of your legal brilliance and the undiminished deference that your presence anywhere around the world amongst legal luminaries always summons and for this reason, I had no doubt about your ability to make our country proud as the first ever Liberian to have officially sat an international bar interview and produce a resounding and enviable result. I am happy that when the list of prosecutors and defence counsel is called, there would be a Liberian citizen in the number who will, as always step up to the challenge and compete professionally in dispensing justice internationally”.
Meanwhile, Cllr. Cephus has vowed that he will work very hard to ensure that Cllr. Johnson and other Liberians join the Tribunal as certified counsel.