A landmark trial of four indicted members of Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah accused of killing a former Lebanese prime minister begins Thursday. Nearly nine years after the assassination, the reverberations continue to roil a bitterly divided Lebanon – but at a much slower boil than the Syrian war, which has overshadowed the tribunal that was at the heart of media and politics in Lebanon for years.
The United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the first international legal body formed specifically to investigate a case of terrorism, will convene Thursday morning to begin trying the four Hezbollah members indicted for playing a role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a flamboyant billionaire businessman and prime minister, who died in a massive truck bomb blast in downtown Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
Supporters of the tribunal see the launching of legal proceedings as a vindication of an almost decade-long effort to bring the suspects to court and hope that convictions will bring to an end what is dubbed here as a “culture of impunity” in which assassinations of political figures in Lebanon generally go unpunished.
“We have been awaiting this day since 2005 and we have worked really hard to achieve the international tribunal,” says Ahmad Hariri, secretary-general of the Future Movement, a Sunni political body established by Rafik Hariri and today led by his son, Saad. “From the beginning, we had the aim that an international tribunal would help us to bring justice and to know who was committing all these assassinations and [identifying] the individuals and parties behind them.”
Hezbollah has slammed the tribunal as a Western and Israeli plot to “tarnish the image” of the party because of its anti-Israel credentials. It has refused to turn over the five Hezbollah men: Mustapha Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra, and Hassan Merhi. Mr. Merhi was indicted separately from the other four and the tribunal has yet to decide whether to try him alongside the others or to prosecute him in a second trial.
The Lebanese government regularly updates the tribunal on its efforts to locate the five accused men, but does not have the political strength to demand that the powerful Hezbollah hand them over.
“Sometimes [in Lebanon], we have these decisions which cannot be enforced because of the structure of the country and the political realities [here] which can create a certain kind of immunity for certain persons,” says Marie-Line Karam, a professor of international law at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “However [that reality] cannot deny the existence and importance of this tribunal.”
Still, even supporters of the tribunal have been critical of the international investigation that led to the indictments, citing slow progress, frequent resignations of personnel, and budgetary constraints which has chipped away at Lebanese confidence in the process.
Not only is the trial being conducted in absentia, but the accused are seen as relatively minor players in the Hariri assassination plot, members of the suspected hit squad rather than the masterminds who ordered his Hariri’s assassination. The tribunal has failed to uncover their identities, even after nine years investigating.
“This has been the most disappointing institution in the history of international trials,” says Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese professor of law at the University of Utah who was an early proponent for the establishment of an international investigation into the assassination. “The list of shortcomings is long, not least the continuing assassinations while the [tribunal] officials repeat ad nauseum the litany… about the wonderful cooperation of [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] and his Lebanese allies.”
For years the tribunal's eventual findings were awaited with both eager anticipation and trepidation at what the consequences for the country right be. But today its impact in Lebanon has greatly diminished, overshadowed by the carnage in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have intervened on behalf of the Assad regime and more than 110,000 people have died. The spillover into Lebanon has prompted a dangerous spike in Sunni-Shiite tensions, car bomb attacks, and assassinations in the past year.
“My sense is that the tribunal has been… overtaken by events, with a party [Hezbollah] standing alongside the Assad regime and openly participating in a civil war that kills tens of thousands,” says Paul Salem, vice president of policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “I think the situation has gone well beyond whether – shock of shocks! – [Hezbollah] might have participated in killing Hariri or others.”
The finger of blame was pointed at Syria even before the smoke had stopped rising from the gaping crater left by the detonation of 5,500 pounds of explosive packed in a van that left Hariri and 21 other people dead.
Relations between the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies and Hariri had been deteriorating for months. Syrian troops were present in Lebanon, and Damascus exerted control over Lebanon’s politics and security, since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Hariri, who first became prime minister in 1992, oversaw the post-war reconstruction of Beirut and dominated Lebanese politics. Backed by Saudi Arabia and influential in the West, he was increasingly seen as a potential threat to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon.
His assassination triggered a series of anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut which, combined with international pressure, prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops two months later. In the following years, Syria – through its allies in Lebanon, chiefly Hezbollah – began to claw back some of its lost influence. The country became deeply polarized between two parliamentary coalitions – the Western and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc and the Iran and Syria-supported March 8 parliamentary coalition.
Hariri’s assassination was only the first in a series of killings between 2005 and 2013 that targeted March 14 lawmakers, journalists, and security officials. Among them was Captain Wissam al-Eid, a senior Lebanese police investigator into the Hariri assassination, and Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the intelligence branch of Lebanon’s police force. Both were killed in car bomb explosions, in 2007 and 2012. The last assassination occurred just three weeks ago, when Mohammed Shatah, a former finance minister and advisor to Saad Hariri, was killed in a car bomb blast in central Beirut.
In 2009, a German news magazine leaked information that the focus of the investigation had turned to Hezbollah, a revelation that shocked Lebanon – both because they had considered Syria the prime suspect and because it was considered risky to pose such a challenge to Hezbollah – and raised fears of a sectarian backlash between the Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of Hariri.
In June 2011, the tribunal indicted four Hezbollah suspects, topped by Mr. Badreddine, a leading figure in the party’s security apparatus and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s military mastermind who was himself assassinated in a car bomb explosion in Damascus in February 2008.
Hezbollah hit back against the accusations, running a slick media campaign in 2010 and 2011 to discredit the tribunal, highlighting allegations of corruption among tribunal officials, alleged evidence of witness tampering, and the overlooking of potential leads implicating Israel in the assassination. The counter-charges were backed up by documents and secretly-filmed video footage broadcast on television.
The trial of the four men is expected to last months. But for supporters of the tribunal, the launch of the trial is a significant moment.
“I can say that now we are on the right track after all that Hezbollah tried to do to put obstacles in front of the tribunal, using all its efforts to say that this tribunal is politicized and that the Americans are using it against us,” says Ahmad Hariri of the Future Movement. “[Thursday] is the day that Hezbollah will realize that the international tribunal is a fact.”