x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hariri tribunal raises violence fears

Tribunal brings hope of determining who assassinated Rafik Hariri but raises fears that more violence in Lebanon could come as a result.

Lebanese anti-Syrian legislators lay a wreath at Martyrs Square statue in Beirut.
Lebanese anti-Syrian legislators lay a wreath at Martyrs Square statue in Beirut.

BEIRUT // Most Lebanese never thought the day would come when the accused perpetrators of one of the highest-profile political assassinations in the country's turbulent history would face trial at the hands of the international community. Yet the formal establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon yesterday offered not only hope that investigators and judges in The Hague might finally determine who was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri and 22 others along Beirut's seaside, but raised new fears in this tiny, fractious country that more violence could stem from the effort.

Supporters and allies of the former prime minister hailed the arrival of the tribunal, but most Lebanese were sceptical that justice could be meted without a rise in violence. "Will they solve the murder of Hariri?" asked Patrick, 38, a Christian from East Beirut. "Did anyone solve the other 10,000 car bombs in Lebanon? The other dozens of killings? We've waited four years for something that will never be done."

Mustapha, a 24-year-old student from West Beirut, mocked the amount of time it took to prepare the tribunal with little progress in the investigation. "I just want to know who the killer is and finish with this drama in Lebanon," he said. "Our life is not going to be any different after we know the truth. It is going to benefit some politicians, the same people who benefited from his killing. [But] I'm sure when they find out who killed him and announce it, it's going to create problems in Lebanon. Look, at this point, even if it was my own father who did it, I don't care anymore. I don't really care anymore. I just want them to stop saying 'the truth, the truth' every time I turn on the television."

The 2005 murder of Hariri - widely ascribed to Syria and its Lebanese allies - set into motion an unprecedented series of political events and raised tensions. The pro-Syrian government that ruled Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1991 was forced from power. That was followed by the withdrawal of occupying Syrian troops after nearly 30 years, and what many consider the nation's first free elections in 2005 that put a firmly pro-western government into place, somewhat removing Lebanon from its vassal status to Syria and its Iranian allies.

But the killing - and subsequent investigation by a string of United Nations officials - was not all good news for Syria's foes, for it was immediately followed by a series of assassinations, murders, fighting and the rise of extremely dangerous sectarian tensions that threatened to return the land to its historical, blood-soaked role as an arena for regional drama and violence. It also saw a wave of mysterious assassinations and attempts on prominent political enemies of Syria that partially gutted the pro-western movement as its leaders spent much of the past four years sidelined by concerns for their own personal safety.

But while the official arrival of the tribunal - along with the authority and gravitas associated with a major international effort - is widely seen as a good thing by Hariri's friends, family and political allies, many ordinary Lebanese are concerned that the sight of Syrian officials and their allies in a European court to be held accountable for their behaviour in Lebanon could start another wave of violence as Lebanon heads into a critical political showdown between the pro-western coalition of Sunnis, Druze and Christians and its mainly Shiite Muslim rivals led by the militant group Hizbollah. The two sides are expected to square off on June 7 in a parliamentary election many think will dictate the future direction of the country.

"It's a nightmare for us from a security perspective," said one security official on the gap between the elections and tribunal. "The start of the tribunal will be seen as the start for pre-election violence and we can only expect it to get worse depending on who the prosecutors demand for trial." Currently four former security chiefs from Lebanon's pre-2005 government remain in a Lebanese prison, but they have yet to be indicted by the tribunal and remain, in many ways, the key issue among the early decisions both the tribunal and Lebanon's government must address.

Two brothers accused of helping with the plot were released on bail last week by a Lebanese judge, but the former military intelligence chief Raymond Azar, Mustapha Hamdan of the presidential guard, Ali Hajj, director of Lebanon's Internal Security Force, and Jamil al-Sayyed, director of General Security, remain in custody after being arrested at the request of the first UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis, in 2005.

Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor, said he has 60 days to ask Lebanese authorities to transfer people and evidence to The Hague, but he has not made the request yet. While in power, the four generals represented the Lebanese face of the Syrian occupation, which was run by Rustom Ghazali, a Syrian general. He was implicated in the plot by early drafts of the Mehlis report and is frequently named as the plot's leader by Hariri allies. They also contend he was acting under orders from the highest levels in Damascus.

mprothero@thenational.ae