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In Lebanon, political murderers elude justice

Special tribunal for Rafik Hariri killing has proved a judicial spectacle

February 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

Ten years ago on Valentine’s Day, Lebanon’s multibillionaire ex–Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed along with 21 others when a massive explosion intercepted his motorcade as it drove along the seaside promenade in Beirut.

Soon after, a billboard appeard at a city intersection, featuring Hariri’s picture and a digital counter that tracked the number of days that had elapsed since the assassination. As only befits a dysfunctional state with relentless electricity problems, the counter eventually stopped working, and the space remained dark until its resuscitation in January 2014 with a new purpose: counting the days since the kickoff of court proceedings at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the United Nations–backed entity created in The Hague to try suspects in the Hariri killing.

The creation of the court, officially launched in 2009, was preceded by a U.N. investigation set in motion by Security Council Resolution 1595. The expectation of justice for Lebanon is, however, complicated by the nature of the tribunal itself.

Political murders have long been a fixture of the Lebanese landscape, but since the 1970s, not a single one has been solved. The Hariri assassination is the only such crime to have merited a judicial spectacle of this sort.

The tribunal was requested by the government of then–Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a dedicated U.S. ally quick to pin the blame on Syria; the project was promptly denounced by opposing parties in Lebanon, who called it politically motivated. In a country of forcibly institutionalized political sectarianism, it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t fit that description.

From the get-go, it has also been clear that not just anyone is eligible for suspicion in the killings. Israel, for example, has been conspicuously exempt, despite a well-documented tradition of deadly interference in the affairs of its northern neighbor. As Lebanese criminal justice expert Omar Nashabe pointed out in a 2011 lecture at the London School of Economics, even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has spoken candidly of his participation in a previous assassination mission in Beirut.

Furthermore, it’s not difficult to see which entity has benefited the most from Hariri’s elimination and the spontaneous finger pointing at Syria; it helped bring to an end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and gave Israel more room to flaunt its regional hegemony. The year after the Syrian withdrawal, the Israeli military attacked Lebanon for 34 days and killed approximately 1,200 people, most of them civilians.

A unique tribunal

The initial U.N. investigation into the Valentine’s Day bombing concurred with the anti-Syria camp’s knee-jerk assessment of Syrian guilt, but this accusation has undergone some revisions over time.

In 2009 the court ordered the release of four Lebanese generals with strong ties to Syria who had been held in a Lebanese prison without charge for nearly four years under orders from U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis. This step represented a shift away from the informal consensus on Syrian guilt.

On the Lebanese political scene as well, allegations were modified. Saad al-Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s billionaire son who served as prime minister from 2009 to 2011, announced in 2010 that it was a politically expedient “mistake” to accuse Syria of assassinating his dad. This didn’t prevent him from commenting to The Guardian four years later, “From the beginning I always thought it was the [Syrian] regime that had done it.”

Meanwhile, in what many have decried as another case of expedience, the STL indicted four members of Hezbollah on charges of participating in the attack and issued warrants for their arrest in 2011. No arrests were made, however, by the politically constrained Lebanese government, so after repeated delays, the tribunal finally kicked off proceedings early last year with a trial in absentia. As an afterthought, a fifth suspect was added to the lineup.

The tribunal has simply absolved itself of challenges to its legitimacy.

One of the men is Mustafa Badreddine, a brother-in-law and cousin of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated by the CIA and Israel in 2008. Earlier this year, Mughniyeh’s son Jihad Mughniyeh was killed in an Israeli airstrike. But these, of course, are not the sorts of murders that merit special tribunals.

In the Hariri case, the prosecution’s arsenal of evidence has largely consisted of telephone records and call logs. But as Hezbollah officials and other observers have repeatedly emphasized, such information is unreliable, given the severely compromised position of Lebanon’s telecommunications network and its susceptibility to outside interference. In recent years, a number of telecom officials have been arrested and charged with spying for Israel.

The tribunal itself also merits skepticism. The STL website boasts a section titled “Unique features,” which notes that a trial in absentia “has not happened in other contemporary international courts.” Although permissible under Lebanese law — itself often an oxymoron — the phenomenon is at odds with the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every human being’s right “to be tried in his presence and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing.”

Further touting the court’s uniqueness, the website explains that the STL “is the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime … [and] is applying the Lebanese legal definition of terrorism, an element of which is the use of a means ‘liable to create a public danger,’ such as explosive devices, inflammable materials, toxic or corrosive products and infectious or microbial agents.”

Under this definition though, Israel qualifies for a host of terrorism charges in Lebanon, from disseminating white phosphorus across landscapes to flattening whole neighborhoods.

Who will judge the judges?

The STL’s mandate was recently extended for three years, beginning on March 1. In a note to the media, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed his organization’s “commitment … to support the work of the [tribunal] to bring those responsible to justice and to ensure that impunity for such major crimes will not be tolerated.”

Crimes undeniably abound in Lebanon, but a biased court is not the best way to address them. As Lebanese journalist Hassan Illeik has pointed out, most of the STL’s top figures hail from countries that categorize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization — as does the country playing host to the whole charade.

Exacerbating this bias, the STL has simply absolved itself of challenges to its legitimacy. In 2012, for example, the results of one self-absolution were published in an official press release: “The [STL] trial chamber dismissed all the motions of the defense counsel, who argued that the tribunal was set up illegally, violates Lebanese sovereignty, has selective jurisdiction and does not guarantee the accused a right to fair trial.”

It’s worth recalling that when the Lebanese parliament failed to ratify the creation of the STL in 2007, the U.N. invoked Chapter 7 of its charter to sidestep the uncooperative state. (This happens to be the same chapter that authorizes military force to uphold U.N. decisions.)

The tribunal has, meanwhile, cost a pretty penny. Last January, BBC News’ Jim Muir observed, “The STL itself, leave aside the nearly four years of international investigation that preceded its establishment, has already cost around $325 million.”

The STL’s website specifies that “voluntary contributions make up 51 percent of [the court’s] funding and 49 percent comes from Lebanon.” A more worthwhile use of funds could no doubt be found in a country in which the poverty rate in certain areas exceeds 60 percent (PDF).

But for the moment, the court appears destined to operate with impunity — making justice in Lebanon as elusive as ever.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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