By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Commentators in the Mideast are clashing sharply over the meaning and possible consequences of the recently issued indictment by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon established to try those responsible for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The indictment was sealed when sent to Lebanese officials, but according to leaks, arrest warrants were issued for four men said to be members of the powerful militant movement Hezbollah. The Shiite group successfully has raised doubts in the public's mind about the credibility of the tribunal and deflated the shock value of its alleged involvement by predicting it would be indicted. Still, the naming of Hezbollah members has sparked dire predictions that Lebanon is yet again on the brink of combustion. In an editorial, the London-based, Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi, a daily generally sympathetic to Hezbollah, wrote:
The Lebanese front is standing on the threshold of escalation, and the explosion has become imminent. The entire region is open to all possibilities, including civil-sectarian war.
Hitting on a theme widely advanced by critics of the tribunal, the editorial questioned the timing of the indictment. Prosecutors first submitted an indictment in mid-January for review by a pre-trial judge and amended it three times. The final charge arrived a few days after the formation of a new Lebanese government led by billionaire Prime Minister Najib Mikati and just before the government was expected to release a statement of its founding principles. This “gives the impression there are international sides -- especially the United States and France -- that do not want this government to succeed,” Al-Quds al-Arabi wrote.
There is no arguing about the fact that the international tribunal is politicized. It is being used as a pressure tool and a destabilizing factor by those standing behind it, to serve their political agendas, which do not bode well for Lebanon and the region. If Hezbollah is targeted, then Syria, its main backer, is next on the list.
If this proves the case, Al-Quds al-Arabi wrote, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s other backer, may be “forced to become involved in a war on Lebanese soil in particular, considering that the two countries will definitely not stand by and watch if Hezbollah is the object of an attack aimed at liquidating it as an influential power in Lebanon.”
Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, whose commentaries are generally viewed as a reliable means of divining Hezbollah’s thinking, saw Israeli influence behind the indictment.
Israel wants to let the world believe that every resistance member is a terrorist assassin who is wanted by the international justice system. It wants to claim that it is facing terrorists who want to kill civilians and political leaders.
Other commentators, however, were less exercised about the tribunal's action. Rajeh Khoury, a columnist with Lebanon's An-Nahar daily, questioned the fuss over the timing of the indictment. Cabinet members knew that delegates from the tribunal had arrived from The Hague to deliver the indictment, he wrote, and so they accelerated their work on the new government's founding principles. “This means that the cabinet statement was in fact timed according to the indictment rather than the indictment chasing the statement,” he said.
Elias Harfoush, a columnist in the London-based Al-Hayat, a daily owned by a leading member of the Saudi royal family, noted that accusations of bias against Lebanon's special tribunal were nothing new.
Indeed, in Serbia, Cambodia and Rwanda, and before that in the Lockerbie case, and now with the pursuit of the Sudanese president and those responsible for the crimes of the Libyan regime, the international judiciary was always subjected to accusations of politicization amid talk of an international conspiracy against the regime facing charges.
The accused, he wrote, “might temporarily feel empowered over justice, but the accusations will remain. The accused will not be freed by a party, a sect or a family, only by an attorney and the judiciary."
Writing in the pro-monarchy, Saudi-based Al-Watan, columnist Muhammad Ali Al-Bridi decried a statement by the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, that none of its members would ever be brought before the tribunal. “This alone would constitute immunity for all those who belong to the party, as though they were God’s chosen ones on earth," Bridi wrote. Nasrallah, he noted, accused the tribunal of wanting to generate sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis, since the assassinated Hariri was an important Sunni figure. This, Bridi wrote, means anyone who disagrees with Nasrallah "is definitely an obnoxious sectarian person or an Israeli and American agent."
All of this was in response to an indictment targeting four members of Hezbollah whom [Nasrallah] wishes to protect, even from legal accountability. It does not matter if they are murderers and criminals, since as long as they belong to Hezbollah, they cannot be affected.
Given the relatively healthy debate in parliament that followed the indictment and preceded the new government's (eventually successful) vote of confidence, columnist Nabil Bou Mounsef argued that despite the bluster of Hezbollah's supporters, Lebanese democracy might finally be strong enough to weather such an event. Writing in An-Nahar, a daily defined by its regular criticism of Hezbollah and the Syrian government, he said:
It was definitely not a normal thing for Lebanon to go, in the past week, from the shock of the indictment – even if it was expected – to wide-ranging political discussion in parliament without violating security-related red-lines.
Noting that such exercises in the past have triggered protracted periods of violence, not least during the 1975-1990 civil war years, Bou Mounsef argued that Lebanon now finds itself in a different place.
This country, which is always in a race to ignite crises, is now walking against the regional current. Along with only a very few countries in the region, Lebanon almost belongs to the pack of the most stable countries, relatively speaking. No matter how loud the noise of political war-making, there is a clear constant, which is that Lebanese powers are expressing their dismay from behind a major red line, which is to abstain from committing suicide.
Of course, so far the warrants for the four Hezbollah men have not been executed. The accused remain at large. What might happen if any of them are actually arrested is the subject of another tale.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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