08.17.11

Panel Indicts Hizbullah in Lebanese Minister’s Murder

A special investigative tribunal in Lebanon has indicted four members of Hizbullah, a move guaranteed to ramp up sectarian animosities in the region.

As Middle East conspiracies go, things don’t get much more convoluted than the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a suicide car bomb on the Beirut seafront in 2005. After six long years of investigation, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon publicly released its indictments for the murder of Hariri on Wednesday. This wasn’t a slam-dunk CSI case. and there’s little chance of closure.               

In fact, the indictments, which accuse four Hizbullah members of the assassination, are likely to inflame internal tensions between rival political blocs in Lebanon as well as their regional supporters. The political rivalries in Lebanon spread far beyond the country’s borders, with Syria and Iran firmly backing Hizbullah, and Saudi Arabia and the United States backing its opponents. “No doubt this will increase pressure. This is a new step inside Lebanon and in the region,” says Jihad Zein, the opinion editor for the An Nahar newspaper in Beirut. “It is one other point against Iran and directly or indirectly against Syria.”     

Much of what was revealed in the 47-page indictment on Wednesday had already been leaked to the press. Some observers speculated in recent months that the leaks were intended to soften the blow and decrease the chance of sectarian violence when the explosive details about Hizbullah’s involvement were revealed. Hizbullah is a predominantly Shiite party with the country’s most effective fighting force, and its political rivals are predominantly Sunni. Hizbullah fighters have clashed with Sunni fighters in recent years, a result of heightened tensions after the assassination of Hariri, and even took over the streets of Beirut in a show of force in May 2008. Many Lebanese now fear that these indictments could bring about more street clashes.      

For their part, Hizbullah officials, who once cooperated with the tribunal, have been in full spin mode, blasting the investigation as an American and Israeli plot against them. And in January, they took an unprecedented step by bringing down the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister, when he refused to denounce the tribunal. When the names of the four accused were first leaked last month, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made it abundantly clear how things were going to play out. “They cannot find them or arrest them in 30 days, 60 days, one year, two years, 30 years, or even 300 years,” he said.     

That hasn’t stopped Hariri and his political allies, known collectively as the March 14 Movement, from ramping up the pressure. On Monday, Der Spiegel published a report claiming that the men accused of killing Hariri had been trained in Iran. Hariri came out swinging. “Everyone in the world knows the extent of the relationship between Hizbullah and Iran,” he said. “We hope [the relationship] has not yet reached the level of participating in hosting persons sought by international justice.” Ouch. Saudi Arabia has also drawn a hard line. King Abdullah’s harsh criticism of the crackdown in Syria last week was also a direct jab at Iran and Hizbullah, President Bashar al-Assad’s closest regional allies.      

The tribunal’s investigation allegedly shows the Hizbullah operatives planning and ultimately carrying out the assassination. But the prosecutor admits that the case against the accused is based largely on circumstantial evidence.

The backbone of the tribunal’s investigation is records of a complex series of phone networks that allegedly show the Hizbullah operatives planning and ultimately carrying out the assassination. But the prosecutor admits in the preamble of the indictment report that the case against the accused is based largely on “circumstantial evidence.”      

In an interview with Newsweek–The Daily Beast last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government had done its best to track down the suspects. “The relevant authorities have been looking for the various people on a daily basis. And they already submitted a detailed report about their findings,” he said. “I believe it’s now up to the court to decide if what we did is right and what we have to do next.”     

That hasn’t satisfied Mikati’s political opponents. “Justice is coming. Justice is coming, and Lebanon, God willing, will be fine,” Hariri said today after the release of the indictments for his father’s murder. Many Lebanese will, no doubt, be wondering what price they will have to pay for that justice.