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Middle east

Alleged killers of Lebanese PM face international court

© AFP (file picture)

Text by Marc DAOU , Thomas HUBERT

Latest update : 2014-01-16

Four members of Hezbollah who are accused of assassinating Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri nine years ago face trial on Thursday before a ground-breaking Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

It is the first time in history that an international court has been granted the authority to investigate a terrorism case, as opposed to war crimes or crimes against humanity. Also in contrast to other international courts, the STL can try defendants who are not physically present in the dock.

This is crucial as the main suspects identified by the prosecution are all members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed radical Shiite political and military organisation, which has refused to hand them over. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has accused the STL of political bias and of “taking orders from the United States and Israel”.

The trial relates to an explosion on February 14, 2005, when a van packed with 2.5 tonnes of TNT in Beirut’s city centre gave Lebanon’s already troubled history a new twist. The blast killed 22 people including Hariri, who was a powerful Sunni leader and a former prime minister.

The alleged perpetrators will be tried in absentia before the court, which is based in Leidschendam, a few kilometres outside The Hague in the Netherlands.

Tackling impunity in Lebanon

Rafik Hariri had distanced himself from Syria and its allies, and his family immediately blamed them for the killing. But the country was – and is – so deeply divided between supporters and opponents of Syrian influence that the Lebanese authorities have been unable to investigate the crime, much less prosecute its alleged perpetrators. Beirut therefore called on the United Nations for help.

None of the 30 or so political assassinations recorded in Lebanon since the 1970s have been solved, including those of two heads of State, Bachir Gemayel in 1982 and René Moawad in 1989.

“It cannot be denied that all the assassinations that have targeted Lebanese political personnel have been encouraged by this very feeling of impunity for political crimes,” a source at the Lebanese ministry of justice told FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity. “Despite Hariri’s murder and the STL, attacks have continued, and even escalated.”

In the years following Hariri’s assassination, a series of attacks claimed the lives of political and media figures, all of whom opposed the Syrian government. The latest was on December 27, 2013, when a car bomb killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Chatah, a close advisor to the ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri – Rafik’s son.

A very “special” tribunal

The continued violence increased the pressure for the STL. Following an agreement between the UN and Lebanon, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1757, which established the special tribunal.

Hezbollah members Mustafa Baddreddine, 52, and Salim Ayyash, 50, are alleged to have planned and carried out the 2005 attack. Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, stand accused of recording a fake video to claim the killing in the name of a fictitious radical Islamist group. The STL issued a fifth arrest warrant against Hassan Merhi, 48, last October, and his case may be merged with that of the other four suspects.

“We are not going to The Hague to seek revenge, but the fact that four Hezbollah operatives are accused of taking part in Rafik Hariri’s assassination and in other murders is calling for an explanation and for accountability,” former Lebanese minister Marwan Hamadé told FRANCE 24. Hamadé was the target of an attack himself in October 2004.

Double-edged trial

The pro-Syrian side has questioned the court since its establishment. Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are running particularly high in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Political science professor Ghassan al-Azzi of Lebanese University told AFP that the court’s proceedings were unlikely to yield any “surprises”. Yet he fears the consequences of a potential guilty verdict against the Shiite suspects. “The impact on the very fragile situation in Lebanon will be significant,” he said.

"We live in a very turbulent security situation. The formation of a government and security are much more important for people today than the court," Azzi said.

Date created : 2014-01-15

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