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In Lebanon, the Hariri tribunal finds itself on trial

A UN-backed international tribunal examining the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri threatens a fragile stability in Lebanon, where the government of Hariri's son recently fell over disputes about the tribunal's role.

By / Staff writer, and Nicholas Blanford/ Correspondent / February 14, 2011

Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister, Saad Hariri, is the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He seeks political support from the rising Hezbollahbacked cabinet for an international tribunal to probe the act of terrorism that killed his father.

Mohamed Azakir /Reuters

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Paris; and Beirut, LEBANON

Justice too long delayed has been called justice denied. But what if that justice, looming in the case of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, threatens a fragile stability or even ignites civil war?

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Those questions underlie the United Nations attempt to prosecute the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former Sunni prime minister. That is an eternity ago in Middle East time – and if the first indictment is published in the coming weeks it will arrive after revolution in Tunisia, revolt in Egypt, and as the Arab world appears to be turning further away from relations with the West.

Yet the Hariri tribunal brings a notion of "international justice" into Lebanon's chaotic politics, its communal power-sharing that includes feudal lords and sectarian leaders. Half of Lebanon supports the tribunal; half is strongly opposed.

And the division appears to be hardening. Most troubling are recent antipathies between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that have risen in no small measure due to the tribunal.

Located far from Beirut in a placid Dutch suburb, the tribunal was set up under the aegis of Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac; it was initially a welcome effort to end an endless round of political killings and to challenge Lebanon's meddlesome neighbor Syria with a local dose of civil society justice. A few years earlier, the Serbian population revolted against strongman Slobodan Milosevic after he was indicted. Why not Lebanon? But given the complex politics of the Middle East, that question seems slightly archaic.

Now, the high stakes in Lebanon are bringing a critical look at the tribunal as a vehicle of international justice.

The tribunal indictment probably fingers members of Syria's ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that has vociferously opposed the tribunal as an exercise in selective justice by the West and Israel. Its opposition brought down the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader.

After it collapsed Jan. 12, Hezbollah began orchestrating a new government and propelled Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman with a reputation as a skillful politician, to the position of prime minister-designate. On Monday, the sixth anniversary of his father's death, the recently ousted Hariri vowed that his movement would oppose that new government. But Hezbollah's ascendancy, and adamancy that Mr. Mikati not cooperate with a judicial body, ensures the tribunal's fate looms large six years after Rafik Hariri died in a massive truck bomb that killed 22 others.

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