Will the fear of Islamists leave the murderers unpunished?
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.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, fearful of an international backlash if his new government totally rejected the work of the STL, was at odds for weeks with Nasrallah over the best approach to take toward the tribunal, with Nasrallah demanding a cut off in funding for the court, as well as total non-cooperation with its investigation. For the time being at least, Nasrallah appears to have acceded to the necessity of appearing to cooperate with the STL -- at least until the government can gain a vote of confidence in the parliament and the policy statement approved.
STL chief prosecutor Daniel Bellemare made it clear that these four indictments were only the beginning. Sources told Lebanon's Daily Star that the indictments contained arrest warrants for other, non-Lebanese suspects. It is widely believed that members of Syrian intelligence, as well as Palestinian terrorists, will also be named in the indictments, although it appears to be less likely that high-ranking members of the government of Bashar Assad will face trial. It is also thought that any indictment of Syrian nationals has been put on hold due to the unrest in that country.
The very first report on the assassination submitted by German judge Detlev Mehlis back in 2006 indicated that the list of suspects would be a long one. Mehlis' report concluded, "Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."
At the top of the list was President Assad's brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence at the time of the report, now chief of staff to the president. In 2005, Shawkat was chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and it is believed to be an impossibility that such a massive plot could be carried out without his direct knowledge. Other suspects include the notorious Ahmad Jabril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), and the current Lebanese intelligence chief Colonel Wissam al-Hasan who was Hariri's chief of security at the time of the assassination. It is unlikely that Hasan will be indicted due to political considerations and his close relationship with Rafiq Hariri's son Saad.
There were at least eight major conspirators, according to evidence unearthed by a lone, dedicated Lebanese army captain, who, without the aid of sophisticated computers (he used Excel spreadsheets), ferreted out the phone networks used by Hezbollah to track Hariri and carry out the assassination. It was a spectacular feat of detective work considering that the United Nations tasked a British computer company to go through every telephone call made in Lebanon for a year previous to the assassination in order to detect patterns in the calls that would point to the perpetrators.
Captain Wissam Eid supplied the STL with his evidence a full year before the tribunal's sophisticated analysis came up with the same answer: at least four networks operating in Lebanon, all connected to Hezbollah, were ultimately responsible for Hariri's death.
The UN investigators were astonished at Eid's work and actually considered him a suspect for a time. But he was able to satisfy the investigators that he had, indeed, cracked the case.
Captain Eid was murdered by a car bomb on January 25, 2008. For him, and the dozens of other anti-Syrian Lebanese who have been killed or wounded since Hariri's death, there will be no justice, despite the STL being tasked with solving those murders as well. Journalists, members of parliament, cabinet ministers, army officers like Captain Eid, and civic leaders have all been victims of Syrian-Hezbollah atrocities. Given the politicized nature of the STL in Lebanon, it is unlikely that any of those murders will ever be solved.
The same can probably be said of the Hariri slaying. With the Syrian-Hezbollah noose tightening around Lebanon, and the slipshod methods of Bellemare (staffers say he appears more interested in the trappings of the office than in getting to the bottom of the Hariri assassination), the prospects for any trials resulting from the indictments handed down are bleak.
Even Saad Hariri, former prime minister until the Hezbollah bloodless coup earlier this year, seems resigned to never getting justice for his father's killing. He has already absolved Syria of any role in the assassination, despite insisting for years that President Assad was behind his father's death.
And despite his claim that he wants to see the work of the STL go forward, his heart does not appear to be in the effort. In the end, with the prospect of sectarian strife as a result of the indictments still looming large, even the younger Hariri realizes that the precarious nature of Lebanese society demands that certain truths not be uttered lest they set off a chain of events that would be catastrophic for the peace and stability of Lebanon. The memories of Lebanon's vicious and bloody civil war in the 1980s is too fresh in the minds of today's political leaders to allow such a tragedy to start up again.
Hezbollah and their masters in Damascus and Tehran fully realize this and are getting away with murder. They are able to do so because they have the guns and have demonstrated a willingness to use them in order to achieve their goals. And the STL, the international community, and the opposition in Lebanon all seem powerless to change that stark reality.