x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sigh of relief as Hariri indictments are delayed

Many in Lebanon fear that the imminent disclosure of indictments would push the delicate political situation towards another civil war.

Beirut // The international tribunal investigating the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri announced this week that the indictments many expected to be issued this month would not be made public for at least a few months.

Since rumours surfaced months ago that the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) would indict members of the opposition Shiite political party and militia Hizbollah for the killing of Hariri, Lebanon has steadily inched away from consensus politics and closer to civil strife. The cabinet has been paralysed over the issue for a month now, after Hizbollah cabinet members and allies walked out in a dispute related to the tribunal, which Hizbollah is eager to discredit.

Many in Lebanon feared that the imminent disclosure of indictments would push the delicate political situation towards another civil war. But in an interview with Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper on Tuesday, the tribunal announced that lead prosecutor Daniel Bellemare was indeed due to hand his indictments to the tribunal's pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, but that it may take Mr Fransen months to clear the indictments and proceed.

Only if and when Mr Fransen is satisfied that the indictments are solid enough will any indictments be issued. This might not happen until as late as April.

"Sometimes I get the impression that the indictment is the final determination of who's responsible for the killing of Mr Hariri," said the tribunal's acting registrar Herman von Hebel in the interview. "An indictment is really only the beginning of a process."

The controversy that has emerged in Lebanon over the tribunal is a testament to the country's frail, paranoid consensus politics. Very little is actually known about the workings of the tribunal and the conviction many have that Hizbollah will be indicted were based on rumours and anonymous leaks to foreign media. The most recent leak was to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which aired a documentary last month linking Hizbollah to the Hariri assassination through anonymous tribunal sources and whistle-blowers.

Hizbollah and its allies say the leaks are part of a US-Israeli orchestration designed to destabilise and discredit Hizbollah. The Islamist party and militia have an arsenal of about 50,000 rockets and missiles including some 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of striking most of Israel, according to a Pentagon source quoted in The New York Times on Tuesday.

That Hizbollah's energies are now focused on Lebanon's domestic political stalemate may serve Israel well. The cabinet remains paralysed and after an intense week last week of political shuttling between foreign patron countries and internal sects and political parties, Lebanon's politicians have returned to verbal sniping at each other.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who stated on a visit to France last week that the cabinet would reconvene on his return, has failed to deliver on that promise, choosing instead to consult President Michel Suleiman on the matter.

But the news that the identity of the tribunal's indictees is months away has calmed Lebanon somewhat. In the meantime, the so-called "Saudi-Syrian initiative" - the solution that Lebanese on both sides of the political divide are counting on to steer the country away from conflict - has more time to be worked out and presented. Saudi Arabia and Syria, who back opposing sides on the Lebanese political stage, have decided to work together to prevent violence.

"This initiative is the only way to deal with any repercussions of the indictments. There is no other alternative right now, which is in a way better than having, say, five different clashing agendas," said Farid el Khazen, a professor of international relations at the American University of Beirut. Lebanon has just earned a much-needed extension to its current tense peace.

"The solution lies in how much Hizbollah and Hariri can compromise," said Elias Hanna, a retired army general and a professor of political science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. "Hariri has to accept something that won't kill his career, which is built on the assassination of his father, and Hizbollah has to accept a compromise that will not demonise the resistance."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae