x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Nasrallah: Hizbollah will back government

The group's leader says the movement had no interest in creating political turmoil over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Supporters salute as the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, makes a televised address.
Supporters salute as the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, makes a televised address.

BEIRUT // Hizbollah will stand by the government despite the Lebanese prime minister's announcement this week of financial support for a UN-backed tribunal that indicted four men linked to the organisation for the assassination of a former premier.

Without giving specifics, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, said in a speech late on Thursday that the Shiite movement had no interest in creating political turmoil over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

"Although we reject all means of funding or co-operating with the tribunal, we will not cause problems in the country and we will make national interests a priority," he said in his scheduled televised address ahead of Ashoura, which falls on Tuesday. "We are keen on political stability and on the government's survival."

Mr Nasrallah has rejected the STL as unlawful and a political device. His comments on Thursday came a day after prime minister Nejib Mikati averted a potential crisis, confirming that Lebanon's required 49 per cent share of the STL's budget had been paid.

The announcement ended months of speculation about how Lebanon would deal with its commitment to the court - an issue that had divided the cabinet. Mr Mikati and his allies supported funding the tribunal. However, allies within the governing March 8-coalition, including ministers from Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement - the largest single bloc in the 30-member cabinet - as well as Hizbollah's members, were opposed to financing the court.

Mr Mikati had threatened to resign if Lebanon's share - more than US$32 million - was not paid, amid fears that his government could collapse if an agreement was not be reached.

Speaking on Wednesday, the prime minister described his decision to fund the court as an effort to "protect Lebanon".

However, Mr Nasrallah said that had the issue of funding the STL been put to a cabinet vote, it would not have passed.

"The STL is unconstitutional, a politicised Israeli and US-court ... Second, we are still against it and against its funding. Third, had the cabinet or parliament convened on the STL funding, [Hizbollah] would have voted against financing it," he said.

In June, four men described as "supporters of Hizbollah" were indicted by the STL for alleged roles in the February 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others. The Shiite movement has denied any involvement.

Local media reported yesterday that the opposition March 14-coalition dismissed Mr Nasrallah's speech, saying that he tacitly agreed to the payment to the STL.

However, questions remain about exactly where the $32 million came from and how the money was dispersed without cabinet or parliamentary approval.

Reports linked the funds to the budget of the prime minister's office and the state-run Higher Relief Committee - something Mr Nasrallah also alluded to in his speech.

"Mikati took a decision to finance the tribunal out of the Higher Relief Committee's budget. Whether he used the funds out of donations or the [committee's] budget ... the days will show how this process happened," he said, adding that he was not sure about the legality of the payment.

Mr Nasrallah also addressed the issue of "false witnesses", calling on the prime minister to address the matter of those accused of lying to international investigators probing Hariri's murder, before the establishment of the STL, which started its work in 2009.

During his speech, the Hizbollah leader also accused the Mustaqbal Movement, led by the former prime minister Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, of inciting religious tension. He called on Lebanese not to confuse political disputes with attacks against Lebanon's religious sects.

Mr Hariri hit back at the Hizbollah chief's speech yesterday, with his office issuing a statement denying accusations that sectarian tensions were being stoked, while denouncing Mr Nasrallah's harsh reaction to the STL funding.

"The truth remains that the Special Tribunal has been funded, and one thousand similar speeches will not abolish the recognition by the Lebanese state of the tribunal and its track"," the statement read.

Meanwhile, the STL confirmed on Thursday that the $32 million had been received by the court.

Also on Thursday, the UN's interim Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Robert Watkins, welcomed the transfer of the country's share of financing for the STL.

"This is a very important step for Lebanon towards meeting its international obligations and towards preserving the country's stability," he said in a statement.