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Rocky start to Hariri tribunal is a test for Lebanese politics

Although the postponement of the Hariti tribunal has hardly caused a ripple in Lebanon, the trial is bound to add to the tension between Sunni and Shia.

On March 25, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was to begin the trial of four Hizbollah members accused of participating in the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. This was delayed by the pretrial judge to give the defence more time to prepare its case. No new trial date has yet been set.

In Lebanon, the postponement hardly caused a ripple, a sign of how low expectations are for a process that has dragged on for years. And yet in the political climate today in the country, the trial is bound to add to the ambient tension between Sunni and Shia. At the same time, this uncertainty will have an effect on the trial process.

Take the recent retirement of Ashraf Rifi, the director general of the Internal Security Forces. There were expectations that Mr Rifi's term would be extended, but this was not to be. Prime Minister Najib Mikati pushed for an extension in his government, but a majority, led by Hizbollah and Michel Aoun, refused to endorse the proposal. This precipitated Mr Mikati's resignation, as he could not afford to abandon Mr Rifi, like him a Sunni from Tripoli.

Mr Rifi closely collaborated with the United Nations investigation of the Hariri assassination. He took over at the ISF from Ali Al Haj, one of the four generals jailed for their alleged involvement in the killing, then released for lack of evidence. Once the head of Mr Hariri's security detail, Mr Al Haj later spied on him for the Syrians. Mr Rifi, in turn, has been regarded as a rare pro-March 14 commander (and therefore, anti-Syrian) in the security services. That is principally why his mandate was not extended.

From the special tribunal's perspective, Mr Rifi was a choice Lebanese interlocutor. Two of his officers, Samir Shehadeh and Wissam Eid, played a key role in linking telephone data to Hizbollah, which formed the basis of the current indictment. Mr Shehadeh was the target of an assassination attempt in September 2006, and left Lebanon soon thereafter. Mr Eid was killed by a car bomb in January 2008.

Another of Mr Rifi's senior officers, Wissam Al Hassan, headed the security force's intelligence branch, before he, too, was assassinated last October. Many suspected Hizbollah, because of its widespread security network, of being behind that assassination as well as the attacks against Mr Eid and Mr Shehadeh. The party has denied this.

With Mr Rifi gone, the tribunal will be looking to see if cooperation with the ISF will continue, and if any further requests for assistance will be addressed in a positive way.

The ISF director general officially stepped down last weekend, to be replaced by his deputy, Roger Salem, who himself is scheduled to retire in a few months. The ISF leadership is generally held by a Sunni, and the fear in March 14 was that once Mr Salem left, he would be replaced by Mr Al Haj, due to seniority.

The advent of Mr Al Haj would be regarded as a provocation by pro-Hariri Sunnis. Many do not see him heading the ISF, because this could provoke domestic unrest. Indeed, some foreign embassies in Beirut have warned senior Lebanese politicians that they could not tolerate a return of Mr Al Haj, who would have latitude to influence embassy security and might opt, at Syria's request, to arrest and deport Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon.

If Mr Al Haj is sidelined, the senior Sunni in the ISF is Ibrahim Basbous, considered to be politically neutral by insiders. This cannot reassure March 14, which seeks an active ISF chief who will protect them - understandable in a country vulnerable to political assassinations. But given the importance of the special tribunal to Sunnis in particular, Mr Basbous will find it difficult to resist cooperation with that body if he takes over the ISF.

One scenario being discussed is that parliament will soon vote to raise the retirement age for senior security figures, in response to a petition signed by 69 parliamentarians. This would resolve the Rifi problem, allowing the general to be brought back from the reserves to again command the ISF. This, in turn, would facilitate the extension of the commander of the Lebanese Army, Jean Qahwaji, later this year, averting a vacuum at the head of the major security institutions.

The special tribunal would welcome such a development. Continuity is essential to its work, above all when there is no functioning Lebanese government and the political system is divided and deadlocked.

And yet once the trial starts, it is unlikely to do much good for national reconciliation. It would shine a bright lamp on Hizbollah's alleged participation in a crime that Sunnis regard as having been directed against their community, through the elimination of a communal champion. This could further exacerbate Sunni-Shia ties, even as the communities already differ deeply over Syria, Lebanon's parliamentary elections and, now, Mr Rifi's fate.

Lebanon has a vested interest in reassuring the special tribunal that it stands behind its work. Once the trial begins, the suspects will most probably be tried in absentia, as none have been arrested. This will not help Lebanon's reputation internationally, least of all if Hizbollah remains in government. One way to compensate is to ensure close Lebanese collaboration with the tribunal, and this concerns most visibly the justice minister, the interior minister and the ISF chief.

Whether Mr Rifi is back at his post or not, Lebanon must prove it can respect its international obligations. This is easier said than done. The country is passing through great instability, and the success of the special tribunal may suffer as a consequence. For a long time, tribunal officials insisted their work was unconnected to internal Lebanese politics. Their bubble of splendid isolation may soon be burst.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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