Lebanon polarised as Hariri tribunal opens

Jim Muir: "In the month before his death, he was increasingly at odds with Syria"

Almost nine years after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the opening session of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Thursday in the Hague is being hailed by its supporters as a historic moment for international justice and for Lebanon.

It is the first time in legal history that an international court is trying a case based on terrorism charges, and also the first time since the post-World War Two Nuremberg trials that international prosecutions are being pursued in absentia.

In Lebanon's already highly charged atmosphere, the trial has been eagerly awaited by one half of the polarised political arena as a unique chance to expose the truth behind at least a few of the many assassinations that have bloodied the country's recent history.

But, with five men linked to the militant Shia movement Hezbollah indicted by the tribunal, many in the other half of the spectrum see the trial as a highly politicised affair aimed at undermining Israel's opponents.

Violence flares

With Mr Hariri and his political heirs largely associated with the country's Saudi-supported Sunni community, and Syrian-backed Hezbollah championing the Shia, the prosecution risks further inflaming sectarian tensions in a situation where violence has erupted with mounting frequency in recent weeks, in large measure as a spill-over from the war in Syria.

Less than three weeks before the trial was due to begin, one of Mr Hariri's close associates, former finance minister and adviser Mohamad Chatah, died in a smaller but not dissimilar bomb explosion barely 500m (yards) from the spot where the former prime minister and 21 others were killed on 14 February 2005.

"His assassination fits into a pattern of recent Lebanese history. Political assassinations are the norm," said his son Ronnie.

A portrait of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sits on his grave which is covered by flowers in central Beirut, Lebanon, on 15 January 2014

It was the latest in a series of attacks that has seen deadly bomb explosions on busy streets and at the Iranian embassy in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut - the mainly Shia southern suburbs - and at Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli.

There is certainly an argument that things are already so bad that nothing the tribunal could produce would have much impact.

Despite many recent provocations, and sectarian clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian-regime factions in Tripoli, the tensions have not burst into nationwide violence approaching a rekindling of the 1975-1990 civil war, for which few Lebanese have an appetite.

The four men accused of killing Rafik Hariri: Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra Wanted posters for the four men indicted in 2011

Much of the sting may already have gone out of the STL issue. In the run-up to the indictments and the issuing of arrest warrants for four - later five - Hezbollah-linked men in 2011, it was an extremely hot political potato in Lebanon.

Israel accused

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, set out his movement's narrative on the affair in August 2010.

Introducing video footage he said was intercepted from Israeli spy drones, he argued that Israel was behind the killing, tracking Rafik Hariri's movements, and penetrating and manipulating Lebanese phone network records on which the bulk of the prosecution case is apparently based.

"The aim was to denigrate and demoralise the leaders and militants of the Resistance, and worse, to stir sectarian strife and even civil war between Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon," he insisted.

Hassan Habib Merhi, a fifth suspect in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, is seen in this handout from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon warrant of arrest for him, obtained on 11 October 11 A fifth suspect - Hassan Habib Merhi - was indicted last year

The opening of the trial will certainly bring it back to centre stage for a while. But Hezbollah itself seems to have decided to ignore the tribunal as far as possible, to turn its back and simply ride it out.

With something like 500 witness statements and hundreds of hours of prosecution and defence submissions to be heard, it is likely to be a protracted affair, lasting many months and possibly years.

The STL itself, leave aside the nearly four years of international investigation that preceded its establishment, has already cost around $325m (£200m).

Since the suspects have vanished from sight and are unlikely ever to end up behind bars, could it not be seen as a colossal waste of time, effort and money?

Not so, says the STL's spokesman, Marten Youssef.

"Justice is not a waste of time, even if it's in absentia. Part of the process is the discovery of the truth - this is what the victims are waiting for. And if there are convictions, that will live with the culprits for the rest of their lives," he told the BBC.

Balance shifts

The STL will be struggling to keep the proceedings as legal and apolitical as possible, trying to shake off the accusation that it is politically motivated and biased.

Mr Youssef stressed that the accused are being tried as individuals, not as members of Hezbollah, which itself is not in the dock.

Vehicles burn following a bomb attack that targeted the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killing him and 21 others in Beirut, Lebanon, on 14 February 2005 file photo The explosion that killed Rafik Hariri and 21 others on 14 February 2005 was enormous

But Hezbollah's supporters will never believe that the STL process is politically neutral.

It was born out of circumstances where, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the regional balance was tilted heavily against Syria and its allies, and in favour of the West and its local adherents, including Rafik Hariri's political camp - a balance which has since shifted in the opposite direction.

And it got off to a controversial and rocky start. Four prominent pro-Syrian Lebanese security generals were arrested at the behest of the international investigation and held without charge for four years before finally being freed in 2009 on the STL's orders, as the focus of suspicion shifted from Syria to Hezbollah.

If the Hezbollah-linked accused are eventually convicted, it will be seen as a political victory for Rafik Hariri's son and political heir, Saad, and the March 14 movement which he heads from self-imposed exile in Paris.

It would also give him and the families of the other victims the satisfaction and perhaps comfort of knowing that for once, the perpetrators of at least these murders had been named and their backers exposed.

But the cumbersome, massively expensive and controversial STL operation has not led to a wider process of accountability that would bring similar relief to the many others who have suffered from violence in Lebanon on different sides of the divide.

Nor, given changed conditions, is it likely to.

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