x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Prosecutor of UN-backed Lebanon investigation quits

Citing health reasons, Daniel Bellemare says he will not seek a second term as the leader of the investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

AMSTERDAM // The lengthy saga that is the UN-backed pursuit of the killers of a former Lebanese prime minister has entered another uncertain phase, after the resignation of the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Citing health reasons, Daniel Bellemare said he would not seek a second term as the leader of the investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

He was the third investigator appointed by the UN to probe the 2005 blast that killed Mr Hariri and 22 others in Beirut.

Mr Bellemare's departure reinforces the sense of pessimism many have expressed about the investigation ever determining who ordered the murder.

Four suspects linked to Lebanon's Hizbollah have been indicted but they were all alleged to have acted at an operational level.

The STL, based in The Netherlands, appears to be stuck.

This may partly be attributed to Mr Bellemare, the Canadian prosecutor who has been heading the investigation since the end of 2007, according to Lebanese analyst and columnist Michael Young, who has also been published in The National.

"Can we blame Bellemare? Partly yes, partly no, because, in the end, you are responsible for knowing what you are entering, for what you are taking on," said Mr Young. "He said time and again that all is going well [but] today where are we?"

Mr Bellemare inherited a Byzantine, politically sensitive and demoralised investigation.

The first UN-appointed investigator, German Detlev Mehlis, started out expeditiously, accusing Syria of involvement, which it has always denied, and jailing four pro-Syrian heads of Lebanese intelligence services for obstruction of justice.

The first order of business for the STL, once it was established, was to free the four officers - an indication of the difficulties to be faced by Mr Bellemare.

But the real blow to the investigation came, according to many, during the two years under Mr Mehlis's successor, the Belgian Serge Brammertz.

Very little apparent progress was made and the investigation did initially not act on evidence pieced together by the Lebanese police captain, Wissam Eid, who was assassinated in 2008.

That evidence forms the basis of the current indictments.

Mr Bellemare can be credited with at least pursuing the telecoms evidence that Capt Eid pointed to and with getting the Hizbollah operatives charged.

He has also been successful in keeping the Lebanese government engaged with the STL, even though Hizbollah, which now forms the government together with its coalition partners, wanted Lebanon to sever all links with the tribunal.

The STL remains a contentious issue in Lebanese politics - the government faced opposition for its share of the funding - but its relevance may have diminished as many see it as no more than a paper tiger.

There has been some hope, internationally and in the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon, that the low-level indictments might lead to more information that could be used to charge those in senior positions.

But it does not look likely that the four suspects will stand trial in the near future and Hizbollah has vowed it would never hand them over.

A trial in absentia, which is being considered, may not yield many new details.

While the process of starting the trials may once again be slowed due to Mr Bellemare's departure, the effect of his decision to leave may not be overwhelming, said Mr Young.

"This is not good for the process but I don't think it is going to make much of a difference," he added. "I don't see that we are moving ahead in any substantial way in indicting those who made the initial decisions."