THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The start of the landmark trial in absentia of four Hezbollah fighters charged in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was postponed Thursday by a judge at the U. N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The decision is a major setback for efforts to prosecute the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, one of the Middle East's most notorious assassinations.

Judge Daniel Fransen said in a written ruling the provisional March 25 start date set last year could not go ahead because prosecutors have not yet disclosed all evidence to defense attorneys for the suspects, and the attorneys can't access other material because of technical issues. Also, defense attorneys have a number of outstanding requests for assistance in their investigations with Lebanese authorities.

Fransen ruled that the problems and delays would "not allow Defense Counsel adequate time to prepare for trial and would be in violation of the most basic right of the accused and the principle of fair trial," the tribunal said in a statement.

No new date was immediately set for the trial.

The Shiite militia Hezbollah denies involvement in Hariri's killing and has refused to extradite the suspects, leading the tribunal to order them put on trial in absentia.

Hariri was once one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders.

When the case gets under way, it will be the first trial in absentia since the post-World War II Nuremberg tribunal that prosecuted Nazi war criminals.

The suspects were indicted after prosecutors analyzed a vast network of telephone records to link an "assassination team" to the suicide truck bombing on a seafront boulevard.

The indictment says the records showed "a coordinated use of these phones to carry out the assassination." According to the records, there was a flurry of calls shortly before Hariri's murder, but they stopped two minutes before the explosion and the phones were never used again.


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