x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lebanon's Hariri says he supports tribunal

Hizbollah members will be charged "soon" in the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a Syrian official says.

The Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, left, leads a meeting at Government House in Beirut.
The Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, left, leads a meeting at Government House in Beirut.

BEIRUT // Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, said yesterday his political party remained committed to the United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of his father. 

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has come under increasing fire in recent weeks from a political opposition that expects some of its members to be accused of involvement in the assassination of the former premier, Rafik Hariri.

At the conclusion of the Mustaqbal (Future) Movement politburo meeting yesterday, Mr Hariri approved a statement that said the party still backed the tribunal, set up three years ago in line with a UN Security Council resolution. The gesture of support comes after Mr Hariri recanted this month on accusations the murder of his father, a former prime minister, was orchestrated by Syrian intelligence agents intent on maintaining control of Lebanon.

The statement declared that the tribunal remains an international body that does not answer to Lebanese politics and that "by patience and steadfastness, most of all, we will not let the blood of the martyr Premier Rafik Hariri go to waste". Mr Hariri had based virtually his entire political career on the theory that Syria had his father murdered to prevent the prime minister from returning to office and forcing an end to the 30-year occupation by Syria's military and intelligence services.

Now contending that the allegation was a "political mistake", Mr Hariri has since publicly reconciled with Damascus at the behest of Saudi Arabia, his single most important political backer. Both Mr Hariri and the tribunal's fairness have come under attack in recent weeks by both the Shiite militant group Hizbollah and a former security official, Jamil al Sayyed, who spent four years in jail after the assassination. Hizbollah appears deeply concerned that key members might be accused by the tribunal.

Mr al Sayyed has repeatedly accused the tribunal, Mr Hariri and several police officials and prosecutors of conspiring to blame him and Syria for the car bomb murder of the elder Hariri, which killed 21 other people and thrust Lebanon into five years of political crisis that shows little sign of abating. Mr al Sayyed also demands that the government investigate and jail anyone found to have offered "false testimony" that led to his arrest along with three other top pro-Syrian intelligence officials in 2005.

Hizbollah officials have embraced Mr Sayyed's cause in recent months in an overt attempt to discredit what they see as an overly politicised tribunal intent on damaging the group's reputation throughout the Arab world. Although there have been no official signals that the independent prosecutors working for the tribunal plan to indict any Hizbollah officials, the Syrian foreign minister told reporters on a trip to New York that he had been told to expect Hizbollah indictments and warned that such a move would be disastrous for Lebanon, a common perception in the region.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, told reporters in New York that Syria has "received word that members of Hizbollah were soon to be formally charged with the assassination". "Such developments risked plunging Lebanon into a new round of sectarian strife and that the UN's investigation should be replaced by a purely Lebanese investigation to ensure fair treatment," he added. Hizbollah and its allies in the opposition, who have a veto in Lebanon's national unity government, have engaged in a multi-pronged effort to discredit the tribunal as well as politically corner Mr Hariri into making a decision between justice for his father's killers and the possibility of renewed sectarian violence between Sunni supporters of his father and Hizbollah's primarily Shiite followers.

Along with public attacks on prosecutors and witnesses, the Hizbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, aired a series of video clips that he claimed raised questions about Israeli involvement in the killing, although tribunal officials later said the group refused to supply concrete evidence beyond the video Mr Nasrallah presented during a speech last month. The opposition has also attempted to stop the parliament's current budget process in an effort to cut the 49 per cent of funding for the US$50 million (Dh184m) tribunal that is supposed to be supplied by Lebanon, but a recent parliamentary report concluded that the tribunal's charter allows for other financial backers to make up any shortfall should Lebanon withdraw.

Another tactic currently favoured by the opposition appears to be the threat of sectarian violence. Hizbollah and its allies maintain a military force stronger than the Lebanese military or any other sectarian militia. Mohammed Fneish, a Hizbollah member, and state minister for administrative development, said on Tuesday the group would no longer cooperate with the tribunal and warned that the group's promise not to use weapons against its Lebanese rivals is conditional.

"Hizbollah won't accept that any of its officials be interrogated in the case of the murder of former premier Rafik Hariri," he said. "The Resistance won't use its weapons domestically unless some wanted to harm it," he said, ambiguously referring to the events of May 2008, when Hizbollah-led gunmen took over West Beirut to remove several amateurish pro-Hariri militias. The fighting, which lasted only a few days, killed more than 100 people and brought the country to the brink of civil war.