Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 August 2020

15 years later: will justice be served for Rafik Hariri?

If those who assassinated Lebanon’s prime minister can get away with their crime, they may well be able to get away with anything

Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri, speaks during a press conference. Behind him, a portrait of his late father Rafik Hariri. AP
Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri, speaks during a press conference. Behind him, a portrait of his late father Rafik Hariri. AP

In the heart of Beirut, a massive placard of Rafik Hariri, the country’s slain statesman – whose name is synonymous with an era of reconstruction and relative prosperity – no longer bears the slogan “We want the truth”.

After his assassination on February 14, 2005, supporters of the former prime minister had put up a counter on the placard, marking the days since he was murdered. The counter, too small to display the digits, now in their thousands, froze up and was later removed. The slogan demanding justice faded from placards and from public memory.

Fifteen years on, no one has been held accountable for Hariri’s killing. The investigation, led by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is set to reveal its verdict next month. The five prime suspects in the killings, all of them Hezbollah operatives, were tried in absentia. Evidence of a political assassination is overwhelming and the identity of those behind his murder is an open secret.

Hariri’s killing was part of a wave of assassinations targeting public figures opposed to the Syrian regime in Lebanon. More than 22 people were killed, including the journalist Samir Kassir and Communist Party leader George Hawi. Hariri himself was forced to step down from the premiership in 2004 as Damascus’ hold over Beirut intensified.

Syrian tutelage was overthrown by the Cedar Revolution of 2005, a popular revolt that came as a reaction to the killing of Hariri. But since those days, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime have only grown stronger as their decades-long crimes have gone unpunished.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has refused to hand over the suspects to the court. Nasrallah himself was never interrogated. Nor was his close ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

While the court’s verdict is long overdue, its timing reveals just how pivotal the statesman’s killing was for Lebanese history. In January 2005, Lebanon was like a phoenix rising from ashes of wars past. Beirut attracted investors, tourists from the Gulf and beyond. Most importantly, it was a beacon of hope symbolising better days to come. Today, it has become increasingly difficult for Lebanese to hold on to that hope. Since last November, the country has plunged into an economic crisis. According to the World Bank, 60 per cent of Lebanese will be destitute by 2021.

Those who opposed Hariri have now found new allies, including President Michel Aoun, who returned to Lebanon in May 2005 after a long exile.

To keep the country from delving into complete chaos, Hariri’s son Saad, who was prime minister twice, went as far as compromising with those who had a hand in his father’s killing. In keeping with his father’s tradition, Saad Hariri tried everything possible to maintain consensus politics to protect Lebanon. But Hezbollah and its allies turned their backs on the country.

While the court’s verdict is long overdue, its timing reveals just how pivotal the statesman’s killing was for Lebanese history

If the killers of a country’s prime minister can get away with their crime, they may well be able to get away with anything. On August 7, the Tribunal has a chance to show that justice will prevail for Hariri. But Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner appointed by the UN to investigate Hariri's killing, warned in a 2016 interview with the Carnegie Institute that a more robust international mechanism is needed to prosecute suspects in the case. With no means of enforcing their verdict, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed government unlikely to hand any suspects to The Hague, the result of the investigation is set to be a disappointment.

Hariri’s murder robbed Lebanon of a great statesman and denied Beirut the stability and prosperity it deserves. If nothing else, the long-awaited verdict of the Special Tribunal shows that unpunished crimes will be repeated. In the words of Mr Melhis, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Updated: July 13, 2020 10:28 AM

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