The United Nations prosecutor investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri filed his indictment after tensions over the probe brought down the country’s government last week.
Daniel Bellemare sent the document yesterday to the pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen, without revealing who is being charged. The details will remain “confidential” until they are assessed, according to an e-mailed statement from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was created in 2007 to probe the killing of Hariri by a roadside bomb two years earlier.
“While justice may be slow, it is deliberate,” Bellemare said today, describing the indictment as “a first step on the road to ending impunity in Lebanon.”
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement walked out of the national unity coalition headed by Saad Hariri, the slain leader’s son, saying it’s being targeted by the investigation. Rising tensions have raised the prospect of a return to violence in a country that emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990 and has seen recurrences of sectarian strife since then.
The judge will review the indictment and then consult with the appeals chamber before finalizing the charges, a process that’s likely to take “at least six to 10 weeks,” court spokesman Crispin Thorold said in a Dec. 9 interview.
‘Out of Control’
“As long as the indictments are not made public things will remain relatively calm,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, said in an interview. “When they are made public then it depends on what’s in them. If there is something really dramatic things could immediately get out of control.”
President Michel Suleiman yesterday postponed talks with lawmakers to designate a new premier by one week until Jan. 24, saying the delay was needed to “secure the national interest.”
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Nov. 11 that he won’t allow members to be detained at the tribunal’s orders, and will “cut the hand” of anyone who attempts to do so. He has also called on Lebanese officials and citizens not to cooperate with the inquiry.
The tribunal’s investigators were attacked at a clinic in a southern suburb of Beirut in October while collecting information. The court issued a statement calling the attack a “deplorable attempt to obstruct justice.”
Hezbollah, classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, and its backer Syria have repeatedly denied any role in the killing of Hariri. His death galvanized millions of Lebanese to protest and led to the ousting of Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years.
The Shiite group and its allies stepped up pressure on Hariri by saying they would block government funds for the probe. The bickering prevented parliament from passing the state budget last year.
Lebanon finances 49 percent of the court. In November the U.S. pledged an extra $10 million to help fund the tribunal, bringing its total contribution to $30 million.
The filing of the indictment is an “important step toward justice and ending impunity for murder,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Those who oppose the tribunal seek to create a false choice between justice and stability in Lebanon; we reject this.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said in a report on Nov. 21 that Hezbollah and Wissam Hassan, the head of Lebanon’s police intelligence, were behind Hariri’s assassination. CBC said its report was based on interviews and documents obtained from UN investigators. Hassan, a close ally of Saad Hariri, was in charge of his father’s security at the time of the killing.
Hassan “has our full confidence,” Hariri said on Nov. 23.
Hezbollah won popularity in Lebanon by helping force Israel’s army to withdraw from the country in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, and fighting the Jewish state again in 2006.
The Shiite group and its allies have been pressing for the detention and trial of people they call “false witnesses” because they allegedly misled an initial UN inquiry into Hariri’s killing.
That investigation implicated Syria and charged four pro- Syrian officials in Lebanon’s security services. They were held in jail for four years before being released in 2009 by the tribunal due to a lack of evidence, after some witnesses changed or retracted statements. Both Hezbollah and its backer Syria have repeatedly denied responsibility for Hariri’s death.
When Hezbollah walked out of the government of Fouad Siniora in 2006, it marked the start of an 18-month political paralysis. That culminated in street fighting in May 2008, when at least 80 people were killed after Hezbollah and its allies seized control of west Beirut. The clashes were the worst since the end of a 15-year civil war in 1990.
Evidence presented by the indictment “must be convincing,” said Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese lawyer and visiting professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If it is not convincing to the average person of common sense and natural decency, the whole tribunal will collapse. The future of Lebanon depends on this basic decency.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com