Rafik Hariri: Lebanon on edge as UN warns against indictment speculation

Rafik Hariri assassination investigation and pending indictment by UN, prompts Hezbollah demonstration. The UN tribunal, looking into the death of former Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, attempted to diffuse tension in Beirut Tuesday.

Grace Kassab/AP
Lebanese soldiers stand guard in downtown in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 18. Hezbollah supporters gathered in the streets of Beirut early Tuesday after a UN tribunal filed Hariri indictments, prompting several schools to close.

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The UN tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri warned Tuesday against making assumptions about the sealed indictment it filed Monday – even as supporters of Hezbollah, expected by many to be named in the indictment, made a show of force in Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

Reuters reported Tuesday that several schools were closed, security forces blocked off a main road to government offices in Beirut, and Beirut residents reported groups of Hezbollah supporters gathering around the city in the early morning. The activity heightened concerns about a repeat of events in May 2008, when armed Hezbollah supporters took over parts of the city. The violence left dozens dead.

While Tuesday ended peacefully, albeit tensely, in Beirut, it will be weeks before the contents of the indictment – including who is accused – are made public. In addition, several other complications and obstacles will remain, including the tribunal's lack of a police force and reliance on Lebanese authorities to arrest anyone in Lebanon who is accused, the AP reported.

Hezbollah, whose members are expected to be named in the indictment, withdrew from the Lebanese government last week, causing it to collapse, after the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri's son Saad, refused to call an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss withdrawing the government's support for the tribunal. The government's collapse has left Lebanon without any clear political leadership and has sparked worries about a return to armed conflict in the country.

But Agence France-Presse reports that on Tuesday the tribunal prosecutor warned against speculation about the indictment's contents.

"Any speculation about the contents of the indictment would be counter-productive," prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said in a video statement the day after submitting the indictment that has sparked a political crisis.

"Confidentiality is essential as I cannot presume that the pre-trial judge will confirm the indictment. If it is confirmed, the content of the document will be made public in due course."

US President Barack Obama welcomed the filing of the indictment, calling it "an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon, and achieving justice for the Lebanese people," reports BBC News.

The Daily Star of Lebanon writes that the indictment is now in the hands of Belgian pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who will conduct a review of the document. That could take six to 10 weeks. If Judge Fransen finds the document to be legally sound, he can approve the indictment and start the process of preparing for trial, which would take at least another four months. If Fransen finds any legal defects in the indictment however, it would remain sealed and be sent back to Mr. Bellemare.

Despite Bellemare's caution against speculation, Hezbollah party leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has suggested that the indictment will name members of Hezbollah and has condemned the tribunal as an "Israeli project" against his party. The Star writes that Mr. Nasrallah warned Sunday that Hezbollah would defend itself if authorities attempted to arrest any of its members named in the indictment.

Abu Dhabi newspaper The National reports that Hezbollah has been engaged in a media campaign against Prime Minister Saad Hariri, now sitting as head of a caretaker government until a new premier is elected. In a speech Sunday, Nasrallah singled Mr. Hariri out as untrustworthy to lead Lebanon out of its current crisis, accusing him of turning against Arabs in favor of the West. Hezbollah television stations have also aired recordings of Hariri from 2007, in which he talks with Mohammed Zuheir Siddiq, a witness in the UN tribunal who was later shown to have given false testimony.

CNN reports that Turkey and Qatar have both dispatched their foreign ministers to Lebanon to try to help resolve the political crisis.

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