UN tribunal indicts Hezbollah members in Hariri assassination

The highly anticipated indictments could help bring accountability for former prime minister Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination. But they could also stir sectarian tensions.

By , Correspondent

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    Lebanese women pass by a giant portrait of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri near his grave, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, June 30. A UN-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri delivered an indictment and three arrest warrants Thursday, the latest turn in a case that has transformed the Arab nation and brought down the government earlier this year.
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A United Nations tribunal on Thursday handed over its first set of indictments in a six-year investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, naming at least two members of Hezbollah.

While the highly anticipated indictments move the Special Tribunal for Lebanon closer to its goal of establishing greater accountability in Lebanon, they could also have serious repercussions. The tribunal's fingering of Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah movement as playing a role in the assassination of a powerful Sunni politician is expected to antagonize sectarian relations in Lebanon, which already are frayed as a result of three months anti-regime violence in neighboring Syria.

“We should set the country’s peace above all else as the indictments are not judgments,” said Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, following the release of the indictments. “The sensitivity of the circumstances call on us to act reasonably to prevent those seeking to create strife from achieving their goals.

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The focus on Hezbollah has relieved some pressure on the Syrian regime, which was initially blamed by many for Hariri's murder. However, sources close to the tribunal say that the working assumption of the investigators is that the order for Hariri’s assassination came from the Syrian leadership, possibly in coordination with Iran, even if a unit within Hezbollah was contracted to carry out the operation. More indictments are possible depending on the progress of the investigation.

Lebanon has 30 days to arrest three suspects indicted

Three officials from the Netherlands-based tribunal have delivered the indictments to Said Mirza, Lebanon’s prosecutor-general, who now has a 30-day period to arrest the suspects.

Although the names are supposed to remain sealed for the first 30 days, they were quickly leaked to the Lebanese media. They included Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah official who is also a cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s military commander who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

According to sources close to the Lebanese judiciary, Mr. Badreddine is a Shiite who operates under the alias of Sami Issa, a Lebanese Christian, and was in overall charge of planning and coordinating Hariri’s murder. Other names included Salim Ayyache, reportedly the head of Hezbollah’s Execution Unit; Hassan Aneissy, also known as Hassan Issa; and Assad Sabra.

“Together we witness a distinctive historic moment in the political, judicial, security, and moral life of Lebanon,” said Saad Hariri, the former prime minister and son of the slain Rafik who has been living in Paris in recent weeks – reportedly because of death threats. “Lebanon has paid the price of this moment, in decades of killings and assassinations without accountability. It is time to put a final end to this shameful series.”

Hezbollah sheikh dismisses tribunal

There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah on the release of the indictments. Hezbollah is expected to take a publicly aloof attitude to the announcement.

On Friday, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said in a speech that the tribunal was no longer of any consequence to his party. “We are through with the issue of the tribunal since a long time,” he said. “We are not concerned with any scenario concerning the tribunal.”

Media leaks over the past two years claimed that the tribunal had discovered an alleged connection between Hezbollah and the assassination of Hariri, who died in a massive van bomb explosion in downtown Beirut in February 2005, a blast that also claimed the lives of 22 other people.

The Syrian regime was widely suspected of ordering Hariri’s murder, as relations between Damascus and the former prime minister had deteriorated drastically in the months leading to the assassination. Syria had 15,000 troops in Lebanon at the time, but Hariri’s death spurred a series of mass street protests which, along with international pressure, forced Damascus to withdraw its troops two months later.

There followed a string of assassinations of prominent Lebanese politicians, security officials, and journalists – most of whom had been openly critical of Syria’s role in Lebanon. An initial report by UN investigators in October 2005 found “converging evidence” that senior Lebanese and Syrian officials had planned Hariri’s assassination.

Search continues for those who authorized assassination

The exposure of a network of Hezbollah operatives allegedly involved in the plot, first reported in the media two years ago, appeared to shift the investigation into a new direction.

But analysts say that Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, did not have the latitude in 2005 to independently carry out an assassination of such strategic import. Still, the UN investigators apparently have yet to tease out the chain of evidence that can take them from some of the newly indicted ground-level perpetrators to those who authorized the assassination in the first place.

That task may have been rendered even harder by a series of mysterious assassinations of key security personnel in Syria and Lebanon since 2005, all of whom may have had knowledge of the Hariri murder.

They include Ghazi Kenaan, for many years Syria’s proconsul in Lebanon, who was found dead in his Damascus office in October 2005 apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Imad Mughniyah was killed in an unclaimed car bomb blast in February 2008. Six months later Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, a top security adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s liaison to Iran and Hezbollah, was fatally shot at his beach chalet in Tartous on the Mediterranean coast.

It is highly unlikely that the Hezbollah suspects ever will be caught and sent to the tribunal in The Hague for trial (the tribunal last year tightened internal bylaws to allow trials in absentia). But the danger of the indictments for Hezbollah is that it will tarnish its carefully cultivated image as a resistance force against Israel by showing it to also be waging war at home.

Lebanon unlikely to diligently pursue indicted suspects

Last year, Hezbollah mounted a skillful public relations campaign to discredit the tribunal as a tool of the United States and Israel to weaken “the resistance.” The campaign culminated in January when Hezbollah and its allies brought down the government after Saad Hariri, the prime minister, refused to disavow the tribunal.

The policy statement of the new government, which is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, is expected to announce a formal cooperation with the tribunal, but it is not expected to pursue the indicted suspects with much diligence.

Of the names contained within the indictment, only Mustafa Badreddine is familiar to the general public. In the late 1970s, Badreddine was a member of Fatah, the Palestinian group then headed by Yasser Arafat. Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the expulsion of the Palestinians from Beirut, Badreddine and Imad Mughniyah joined the nascent Hezbollah.

Badreddine, operating under the Christian Lebanese name of Elias Saab, was sentenced to death and jailed by a Kuwaiti court in 1984, one of the so-called “Kuwait 17” found guilty of organizing a string of bomb attacks against Western targets in the emirates. The release of the Kuwait 17 became a key demand of the Lebanese militants who kidnapped dozens of foreigners in Beirut in the late 1980s, an operation allegedly overseen by Mughniyah. Badreddine escaped from jail in the chaos following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and from then disappeared.

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