Shiite supporters of the Hezbollah-led parliamentary opposition assembled on the streets of several Beirut neighborhoods early Tuesday, a trial show of force that panicked some schools into closing and sent a tremor of unease through the Lebanese capital.
The street gatherings, which were peaceful and lasted for about two hours, came a day after an international tribunal investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, submitted indictments for a pretrial legal assessment. Details of the indictments remain confidential for now, although it has been widely reported that they will name members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah.
“This is an important moment for the people of Lebanon. It marks the launch of the judicial phase of the tribunal,” Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, said in a video-taped statement. “For the first time, a legal case has been launched against those responsible for a political assassination in Lebanon.”
Herman Von Hebel, the tribunal’s registrar, said that the first trials could begin in September or October “if all goes well.” He added that they could be held in absentia if none of the indicted are arrested and brought to the Netherlands.
Hezbollah threatens strong backlash
Hariri was killed with 22 others in a massive truck bomb explosion in February 2005. The UN-backed tribunal has been investigating the murder of Hariri and other Lebanese politicians and journalists since June 2005.
Daniel Fransen, the tribunal’s pretrial judge, has six to 10 weeks to deliberate on the evidence accumulated by the prosecution. If he approves the case, the indictments are expected to be made public, including the names of those charged and possibly hundreds of pages of accumulated evidence.
Hezbollah sources warned in recent weeks of heightened measures by the group in response to the issuing of indictments. The pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Tuesday quoted an unnamed Hezbollah source as saying “the postindictment phase will not be like the preindictment phase at all.”
Hezbollah's trial run for future protests
Lebanese troops fanned out in flash-point neighborhoods of Beirut on Tuesday morning shortly after the crowds had dispersed. Sources close to Hezbollah said the gatherings were intended to send a message and at the same time were a trial run for future potential action on the streets.
Mouin Merhebi, an anti-Hezbollah MP, accused the opposition of resorting to “armed mobs.”
But Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian politician and ally of Hezbollah, urged the Lebanese security forces not to interfere with street protests against the tribunal.
“The Special Tribunal for Lebanon will never enter Lebanon,” he told Lebanon’s New TV channel.
The uptick in tensions comes as Lebanon’s regional neighbors continued to find a way to resolve the political crisis in Beirut following the collapse of the coalition government last week when all opposition ministers resigned.
Statutory consultations between President Michel Suleiman and the members of the 128-seat parliament to nominate a new prime minister were supposed to begin Monday. However, they were canceled to allow a chance for a regional mediation.
On Tuesday, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, and Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, visited Beirut to hold talks with Lebanese officials.
A day earlier, neighboring Syria hosted a summit in Damascus grouping the leaders of Syria, Qatar, and Turkey. The summit called for the resumption of a Saudi-Syrian dialogue to find a compromise between the opposing Lebanese factions.
It remains unclear, however, whether such a compromise can be found given the deepening divide between the Hezbollah-led opposition and supporters of Saad Hariri, the head of the caretaker government and son of the slain Rafik.