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After months of delay and hesitation, the United Nation’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has presented indictments to Lebanon’s state prosecutor in the case of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. To no one’s surprise, the indictments named four members of the terrorist group/political party Hezbollah, including one of its top military commanders. Yet fears of extreme internal discord, not the least of which would be sown by the looming influence of Syria and Iran, make the likelihood of punishment for the crime not favorable.
The indictments come at a time when the new Hezbollah-dominated government is preparing for a vote of confidence in parliament, and underscore the delicate political considerations that caused the UN to keep putting off formally announcing the charges, despite the fact that leaks dating back to 2010 had established the Hezbollah connection to the crime. The UN feared both a Sunni backlash against Hezbollah and the unpredictable response of the terrorists to being singled out for justice in the high profile assassination case, believing the indictments could ignite another civil war.
The prosecutor, Saeed Mirza, now has 30 days to arrest the suspects and turn them over to the STL for trial. If the prosecutor fails to arrest the suspects within that period, the STL will then make the indictment public and summon the suspects to appear before the court. If they fail to appear, the court has the option of trying them in absentia.
Hezbollah has rejected the indictments and the authority of the tribunal, claiming the court is a tool of the Israelis and Americans and vowing that it won’t cooperate with any efforts by the STL to try its own party members. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s spiritual adviser and acknowledged leader, blasted the court as “corrupt” and stated, “They will not be able to arrest them in one year, two [years], nor in 30 or 300 years[.]” Nasrallah previously threatened to “cut off the hands” of anyone who tried to apprehend members of his group and claims that the goal of the tribunal is to sow sectarian strife in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shias.
Hariri was a beloved figure in the Sunni community, having served as prime minister four different terms between 1992 and 2004. His murder in a massive car bombing on February 14, 2005 set off a series of demonstrations that eventually led to the Syrian army quitting Lebanon the following spring.
The indictment names Mustafa Badreddine, the brother-in-law of assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, as the prime suspect and the chief planner in the assassination. Badreddine replaced Mughniyeh as Hezbollah’s chief operations officer after he was killed in a mysterious explosion in Syria on Feb. 12, 2008 — presumably carried out by Israeli intelligence, although there were murmurs at the time of his death that Syria’s President Assad or a rival Hezbollah faction might have been responsible for the attack.
Also named were Salim Ayyash, 48, who headed up the terrorist cell that carried out the operation. Ayyash holds a US passport and was a volunteer with Lebanese civil defense. It is believed both men have fled Lebanon and are currently hiding in Iran.
Little is known about the two other conspirators — Asad Sabra and Hasan Ainessi — except that Hezbollah has confirmed they are members of the terrorist group.
In a vaguely worded policy statement, of which portions related to the STL were released on Friday, the new government stressed its “respect” for all UN resolutions and its intention to follow the tribunal’s instructions in order to get to the bottom of the Hariri assassination. The policy statement must be approved in parliament in order for the cabinet to be seated.
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