The Lebanese government is caught between Hizbollah, a powerful political and military force, and Western powers, which could impose economic sanctions if the warrants are ignored.
UN, US pressure Lebanon to make arrest over Hariri assassination
The United Nations, the United States and an international court yesterday all urged Lebanon's government to act on arrest warrants in the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The UN-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) issued the warrants on Thursday against four Lebanese men - two of them confirmed Hizbollah members - implicated in the 2005 assassination. Lebanon's prosecutor said yesterday that he is taking steps to comply.
"The legal measures to execute the arrest warrants handed over by the international tribunal delegation took their course towards implementation," prosecutor Saeed Mirza was quoted as telling Lebanon's National New Agency.
But it seemed unlikely the men would be handed over soon, if ever. Their whereabouts is unknown and Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has previously vowed not to hand over any of the group's members. Mr Nasrallah will address the indictments in a speech today. The Shiite group denies any role in the killing.
The Lebanese government is caught between Hizbollah, a powerful political and military force, and western powers, which could impose economic sanctions if the warrants are ignored.
Lebanese analyst Michael Young, who also contributes to The National, thinks there is little chance that the suspects will be handed over.
"I believe that Hizbollah is not going to react in a positive way to the STL's request." And he doubts the international community will get tough with Lebanon. "The Security Council cannot even agree on a resolution on Syria, where people are being killed by the regime. So, what are the chances they'll act against Lebanon?" he said.
Nonetheless, the international pressure has been applied swiftly.
"We call on the government of Lebanon to continue to meet its obligations under international law to support the Special Tribunal," the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said in a statement yesterday.
Mrs Clinton called the indictments "an important milestone" that offered "a chance for Lebanon to move beyond its long history of political violence and to achieve the future of peace and stability that the Lebanese people deserve".
A spokesperson for the UN's secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon said yesterday: "The secretary general calls on all states to support the independent judicial process, in particular by co-operating with the Special Tribunal in the execution of the indictment and arrest warrants."
The STL's prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, issued a similar statement. "Bringing the accused to justice will require adherence to the rule of law, the continued co-operation of the Lebanese authorities, and support of the international community."
This puts Najib Mikati, Lebanon's new prime minister, in a difficult position as his coalition is dominated by Hizbollah and its allies. They brought down a unity government led by Mr Hariri's son Saad in January over the issue of co-operation with the UN-backed tribunal.
In an apparent attempt to deflect the pressure, Mr Mikati said in an interview published in the As-Safir daily newspaper that primary responsibility for the indictments rests with the country's judiciary. He said that the follow-up "falls on Prosecutor General Said Mirza, not the cabinet".
He also indicated that national unity and stability are his priority. "We don't want to create a state of panic and tension in the country over an international resolution."
He said that he did not believe the STL indictments would lead to renewed strife. In 2008, Hizbollah attacked its political opponents and took over parts of Beirut in violent clashes.
The Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, has said that it will press for the suspects to be handed over. "If Hizbollah does not co-operate over the indictment, then we will refer to domestic and international options," one of the party's officials told the Al-Akhbar newspaper.
The tribunal has taken into account that the government may not serve the warrants or make arrests.
The tribunal noted that if no arrests have been made within 30 days, it can advertise the warrants itself in the media. And, if the men are not in custody within a further 30 days, the court can consider initiating in absentia proceedings. "The Trial Chamber will then determine whether the accused is trying to avoid trial or if the accused is unable to attend," according to a STL statement.
If a trial in absentia proceeds, the accused will be represented by court appointed lawyers. Their absence will not stop evidence that is potentially embarrassing to Hizbollah from emerging during the trial.
The consequences for Lebanon if it fails to co-operate are unclear. It may be that the country can avoid a conflict with the international community if the suspects simply cannot be found or appear to have left the country. But even that may be unacceptable to Hizbollah.
A key Hezbollah ally yesterday warned that the indictments could lead to new civil strife. The Druse leader Walid Jumblatt called for stability over justice. He pointed to widespread fears that the case could further divide the country, which has been recovering from decades of bloodshed, including a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and recent sectarian battles.
"As much as justice is important for the martyrs and the wounded, so too civil peace and stability is the hoped-for future," he said at a news conference yesterday. "Civil peace is more important than anything else."
The STL made clear in a statement yesterday that its investigation was not complete. "The prosecutor can submit additional indictments to the Pre-Trial Judge at any stage."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Press