BEIRUT, Lebanon- A United Nations-backed international tribunal began hearing the cases this week of four men accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in a 2005 suicide bomb attack that sparked massive demonstrations in Lebanon and forced Syria to withdrawal from the country it had occupied for close to three decades.
The opening of the trial comes as Lebanon, a sectarian tender-box that is home to 17 disparate religious sects, remains completely polarized over the sectarian civil war engulfing neighboring Syria, where rebels supported by Lebanon’s Sunni community are battling a regime backed by the Lebanese Shia political party and militant group Hezbollah. The trial of the four suspects allegedly linked to Shia Hezbollah and accused of killing the country’s leading Sunni figure is likely to add fuel to the sectarian conflagration ignited by Syria’s civil war, in which a government controlled by the country’s minority Alawite sect and supported by Shia Iran and Hezbollah is attempting to put down a rebellion dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority.
The Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL,) which was established by a 2007 United Nations Security Council Resolution, is trying the four suspects, all of whom are allegedly linked to Hezbollah, in absentia because the court and Lebanese authorities have been unable to locate the men since warrants were issued for their arrest in June 2011. Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party, social movement and armed fighting force, has denied any involvement in the assassination of Hariri, a Sunni, and has denounced the tribunal as an “Israeli instrument.”
The Iranian-backed Shia group operates a virtual with in a state in Lebanon and maintains a militia that is more powerful than the Lebanese army, making it next to impossible for Lebanese authorities to arrest the four men without Hezbollah’s consent.
Since Lebanon’s sectarian fissures tend to mirror the country’s political divisions, Sunnis, who view Hezbollah as a proxy force of Shia Iran, mainly support the tribunal, while Shias largely back Hezbollah and regard the tribunal as an effort to neuter their community’s most powerful organization.
Hariri’s February 14, 2005 assassination in a massive bomb blast that tore through the former prime minister’s motorcade as it ferried through downtown Beirut precipitated demonstrations by Lebanese opposed to the presence of Syrian troops, which had occupied the country since 1976, a year after an ambush by Christian militiamen against a bus packed with Palestinians in Beirut sparked Lebanon’s 15 year long sectarian civil war. Syrian troops initially entered Lebanon to buttress the country’s embattled government during Lebanon’s civil war, but stayed after the sectarian conflict ended in 1990, treating Lebanon as if it was a Syrian colony instead of a sovereign state.
During its hegemonic occupation of the country, Syria orchestrated the assassinations of myriad Lebanese political figures opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon and just six months prior to his assassination Hariri had come out against a constitutional amendment backed by Damascus that extended the term in office of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. Syria, which exercised a great degree of control over Lebanese politics during its 29-year long occupation of the country, was immediately blamed for Hariri’s assassination and international pressure forced it to withdrawal from the country less than three months after the former prime minister was murdered.
Since Hariri’s assassination and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops, Lebanese politics has been dominated by the issue of the STL, with the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance opposing Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, and the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition supporting the U.N-backed courts efforts to prosecute Hariri’s killers. The country’s Sunni community largely backs the March 14 alliance, which is headed by Hariri’s son, while its Shia plurality mainly supports the March 8 coalition, which is dominated by parties loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Lebanon’s Christian community is largely split between the two blocs.
In January 2011, Hezbollah and its allies in the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance withdrew their 11 ministers from a cabinet headed by Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri’s son, causing the government to collapse. The Shia group and its allies orchestrated the collapse of the government after the younger Hariri refused to adhere to Hezbollah’s demands to withdraw Lebanon’s funding for the tribunal, which came into fruition in March 2009, and to cease cooperating with it. Hezbollah had insisted that the Lebanese government, then comprised of ministers from both the March 14 and March 8 coalitions, halt its cooperation with the STL after it became clear that members of the Iranian-backed Shia group would be indicted by the tribunal.
In June 2011, the STL formally indicted Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra for Hariri’s 2005 assassination. The four suspects are reportedly members of or linked to Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed not to turn the men over to the Hague-based court. Commenting on the chances of the four suspects being taken into custody by the tribunal, Nasrallah, a heroic figure to Lebanon’s Shia community, said, “They cannot find them or arrest them in 30 days or 60 days, or in a year, two years, 30 years or 300 years.” If Nasrallah’s prophecy becomes a reality, then it is unlikely that Hariri’s killers will ever face justice.
– Eric Erdahl
Sources: BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, New York Times
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