Tension in Lebanon as Hariri inquiry prepares indictments


The expected implication of Hizbullah in the killing of the former prime minister could have serious consequences, writes PETER CLUSKEYin The Hague

TENSION IS increasing across the Middle East in anticipation of indictments within the next few weeks from the UN court investigating the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

It is widely expected that the tribunal, based at the former headquarters of the Dutch security services in The Hague, will indict several members of the Shia paramilitary group Hizbullah – which controls 57 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

The most senior Hizbullah commander being named unofficially is Mustafa Badreddine, brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyah, the man alleged to have masterminded a series of attacks in the 1980s, including the 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut which killed 241 US servicemen.

Badreddine has allegedly run Hizbullah’s counter-intelligence directorate since the 1990s. Mugniyah, who formerly featured on the FBI’s most wanted list, was killed in 2008 by a car bomb in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The bombers were never found.

It is understood that much of the tribunal’s case rests on mobile telephone intercepts. Although the alleged assassins apparently worked through a closed mobile phone network, it is suggested that this security precaution was compromised when one of the group called his girlfriend.

The office of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon has refused to comment on the status of the Hariri case. However, Italian judge Antonio Cassese, the president of the tribunal, confirmed last week that an unspecified number of indictments were imminent.

“We want to show that this international tribunal can do justice in an impartial way, free of bias,” Judge Cassese (73), formerly president of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, told journalists in The Hague.

In an attempt to ease tensions, he added that indictments were not the same thing as guilty verdicts and “should not trigger a civil war in Lebanon”.

The indictments will come as no surprise to Hizbullah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said as far back as July that he expected members of his group to be indicted – although he denied any involvement and claimed to have evidence implicating Israel in the assassination. Israel called Nasrallah’s claims “unfounded and ridiculous”.

The killing of pro-western Hariri with a car bomb on February 14th, 2005, led to huge popular protests and to the withdrawal the following month of Syrian troops, who had been stationed in Lebanon for the previous 29 years.

In initial reports, UN investigators alleged that Syrian intelligence agents, who essentially controlled Lebanon’s security, had played a role in Hariri’s death, a charge Damascus has denied and which has never been publicly substantiated.

Now, almost six years later, Hariri’s son, Saad – who says he is determined to establish the truth behind his father’s assassination – is Lebanon’s prime minister in a far-from-stable government of national unity which includes pro-Syrian Hizbullah.

The implications of such a tinderbox cannot be overestimated, as the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and veteran political survivor, Walid Jumblatt, told the US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, at a face-to-face meeting recently.

“He told me I’m a national leader and should back the tribunal,” Jumblatt recounted to one US newspaper. “I said no, I prefer to be a tribal leader; I’m downgrading. I asked him what the use of tribunal justice is if it leads to slaughter. It is better to drop justice for stability.”

Given such fears, it is not surprising that Lebanon is politically paralysed as Christmas approaches.

Latest reports from Beirut suggest the Hariri indictments may now be delayed until early in January and, according to Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, that delay may be linked – in typically Byzantine Middle Eastern fashion – to new, more conciliatory, contacts between the US and Iran about Iran’s nuclear programme.

As to the timeline in The Hague, the newly appointed registrar of the Lebanon tribunal, Herman Von Hebel, says a trial could be held about four to six months after the indictments are issued and would probably take six to 10 weeks.

Unlike other international war crimes courts, the Hariri tribunal does not have its own police force to arrest suspects. However, it does have the power to try suspects in absentia if they elude arrest.

The aim is to prevent the emergence of situations such as that involving former Bosnian Serb commander Gen Ratko Mladic, who remains on the run 15 years after being indicted for genocide.