The tribunal created to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri was inaugurated today at a special ceremony in The Hague. "I welcome you to the opening ceremony" of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the registrar Robin Vincent told VIPs, diplomats and journalists gathered for the much-anticipated event at the tribunal's new seat at former Dutch intelligence headquarters in the suburb of Leidschendam.
Guests included the UN under-secretary general for legal affairs, Patricia O'Brien, Lebanese ambassador to the Netherlands Zeidan Al-Saghir and the tribunal's chief prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. Mr Bellemare has led the international investigation into a series of attacks on Lebanese political and media personalities, notably Hariri's assassination in a car bombing in Feb 2005 that also killed 22 other people.
The attack on Mr Hariri on the Beirut seafront was one of the worst acts of political violence to rock Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war and led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year presence. The tribunal, created by a UN Security Council resolution of June 2007, will apply the Lebanese penal code. It has an initial, renewable, three-year mandate, though Mr Vincent has predicted it may need closer to five years.
There was no indication of a date for its first trial. The identities of the tribunal's 11 judges, four of them Lebanese, are being kept under wraps for security reasons. In its early stages, the UN probe into the murder implicated top officials close to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Damascus has consistently denied any involvement. In an open letter to the Lebanese people, Mr Bellemare vowed on Saturday to "do everything that is humanly and legally possible to ensure that the truth emerges and that those responsible for the crimes that fall within our jurisdiction are eventually brought to justice".
Four Lebanese generals have been in held in Lebanon for nearly four years over the killing. A lawyer for one of the generals, Akram Azuri, said last week the group did not fear the tribunal's opening. "They have a clear conscience, they have no problem with the tribunal. They are impatient for it to get underway," he said. Three others, civilians suspected of withholding information and misleading the ongoing probe, were freed on bail by Lebanon on Wednesday.
As of today, the office of the prosecutor will have 60 days to apply to the Lebanese authorities for the transfer of suspects and evidence files. Mr Vincent has told reporters that the courtroom, to be erected in what used to be a spies' gymnasium, was unlikely to be completed before November this year. The tribunal, he added, had a separate wing of holding cells at the Dutch penitentiary in Scheveningen, which "is operational, staffed and ready to receive anyone we get."