x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Cabinet in Lebanon to tackle false witness issue

Investigators "ready to issue indictments" for false testimony as the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri vows to stand firm against pressure from Hizbollah.

BEIRUT // The Lebanese cabinet is set to debate today how to investigate witnesses who allegedly lied to United Nations investigators probing the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

In recent months, Hizbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have pressed the "false witnesses" issue in an apparent attempt to discredit the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is said to be preparing to hand down indictments within weeks, possibly against members of the Islamist movement. They claim witnesses were coerced into implicating Hizbollah and Syria in the killings of Hariri and at least 20 others.

Hizbollah and its allies want the issue referred to a quasi-independent judicial body for possible prosecution. These demands carry weight: as the top members of the political opposition in a unity government, the Shiite movement and its supporters control enough cabinet votes to bring down the government if their demands are unmet.

The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has urged that the cabinet address the "false witnesses" issue head-on. "The method of procrastination and delay must stop. Cabinet should be decisive regarding the false witnesses' issue," the daily Al-Liwaa quoted Mr Berri as saying yesterday. "This issue should be resolved in cabinet's next meeting even if ministers are required to vote."

But the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, whose political career has hinged upon supporting the investigation into his father's assassination, has already rejected not only such a referral to the Higher Judicial Council of Lebanon, but late Tuesday announced that he would not allow a vote on the issue on Wednesday regardless of the opposition's complaints.

Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and a one-time ally of Mr Hariri now considered neutral, has repeatedly warned that the tribunal could endanger Lebanon. Yesterday, he again recommended against any cabinet vote on the "false witnesses" issue.

In remarks published in As Saffir newspaper, while he was visiting with counterparts in Syria, Mr Jumblatt said that Lebanon needed stability "more than justice" and that continued dialogue, rather than a cabinet showdown, was Lebanon's only hope to avoid a government collapse. The tribunal has turned Lebanon into a political pressure cooker. After a series of speeches by Hizbollah's leader Hassan Nasrullah, in which he predicted the group would be accused and warned such indictments would spark new sectarian violence in Lebanon, other allies have issued a steady stream of threats and innuendo.

Hizbollah military officials have admitted to preparing responses to any indictments but have stressed to The National that such plans will only be considered as a last after the outcome of several other factors.

For his part, Mr Hariri told a gathering of his supporters at a meeting late Monday evening that his support for the tribunal would continue and that he would refuse any settlement of the crisis that did not allow the investigation into his father's death to move forward.

But even as many Lebanese hope for a compromise that could avert a potentially destabilising showdown, a prominent US senator and former Democratic Party candidate for president, John Kerry, said Lebanon could not stop the tribunal.

"Lebanon doesn't have the power to change the tribunal, because it was created by the United Nations at the request of this country," he said. "Even Prime Minister Hariri cannot halt the STL."

One tactic expected to be used by the opposition in the coming days, besides forcing a vote on the witness issue, would be an attempt to force the cabinet into removing financial support for the tribunal and forbidding Lebanese police investigators seconded to the investigation to cooperate.

Mr Hariri, however, has repeatedly refused to consider such a move, and even if such an effort was successful, it is doubtful that it would halt the issuing of indictments, according to one high-ranking police official, who asked to not be identified out of fear of angering Hizbollah.