A United Nations tribunal handed Lebanese authorities an indictment that includes arrest warrants for people suspected of involvement in the 2005 killing of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced the delivery of the indictment in a televised address, without giving details of its contents. LBC television and other local media said the arrest warrants were for four people, at least two of them connected with the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, one of the main backers of Mikati’s newly formed administration.
“The indictments aren’t judgments, and accusations require irrefutable evidence,” Mikati said.
A dispute over the UN inquiry brought down the government led by Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son, in January when Hezbollah and its allies quit the Cabinet. The disagreement has threatened a return to sectarian violence in a country that emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990.
The UN court said in an e-mail that it wouldn’t comment on the identity of those named in the indictment, which will remain “confidential to assist the Lebanese authorities in fulfilling their obligations to arrest the accused.” Lebanon has 30 days make the arrests, with the aim of transferring the defendants to the court in the Netherlands, the tribunal said. Lebanese media said the court could try those accused in absentia.
Lebanese Attorney General Saeed Mirza and Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim el-Moussawi weren’t available for comment when called after the indictment was announced.
Hezbollah had pressed Hariri to halt cooperation with the court, saying it is unconstitutional, biased and part of a U.S. and Israeli plot to target the Shiite group and its backer, Syria. Billionaire Mikati announced a new government on June 13.
“The end of the killers’ era has begun, and the beginning of the justice era is approaching,” Saad Hariri said in a statement e-mailed by his office. Mikati’s government must cooperate with the tribunal, he said.
Shortly before Mikati said the indictment had been filed, his government announced a set of policy priorities that included a vow to adhere to commitments under international law.
“I have a friendship with Hezbollah and I also have contacts outside of Lebanon, but it doesn’t mean I follow anyone’s agenda,” Mikati said in a Jan. 27 interview at his Beirut office. “My own agenda is going to be followed and that agenda is to maintain very good relations with the international community, and Lebanon has to fulfill its commitments.”
Rafiq Hariri was killed along with 22 others by a roadside bomb in Beirut in 2005. The country has since witnessed at least seven political assassinations, a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and civil unrest three years ago in which about 80 people died.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in November that he won’t allow members to be detained 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 last October while collecting information.
One of the four people named in the indictment, according to LBC, is a Hezbollah member and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, a commander of the group killed in a car bombing in Syria in 2008 and blamed for the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut.
Lebanon finances 49 percent of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was created in 2007 to probe Hariri’s killing. In November, the U.S. pledged an extra $10 million, bringing its total contribution to $30 million.
The indictment’s evidence “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.”
Hezbollah and 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.
Hezbollah, classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, won popularity in Lebanon by helping to force Israel’s army to withdraw from the country in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, and fighting the Jewish state again in 2006.
‘Uncover the Truth’
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “his strong support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and for its efforts to uncover the truth and send a message that impunity will not be tolerated,” a statement released in New York said.
“He calls on all states to support the independent judicial process, in particular by cooperating with the Special Tribunal in the execution of the indictment and arrest warrants,” the statement said. “The Secretary-General expects the new Government of Lebanon to uphold all of Lebanon’s international obligations and to cooperate with the Special Tribunal.”