How to get away with Hariri’s murder
As long as I can remember my late maternal grandmother kept a picture of a young Rafik al-Hariri in her kitchen. For this semi-educated housewife, Hariri resembled one of her sons and was a good and generous man who helped rebuild post-war Lebanon and gave scholarships to thousands of students in the country and abroad.
As in the aftermath of previous political assassinations, however, my grandmother assumed Hariri’s killers would escape punishment.
On February 14, 2005, a huge explosion rocked Beirut and killed Hariri and 21 others. The attack exposed dramatic shortcomings in the Lebanese state and its judiciary to react and deal with such crimes. So it was that, four years later, the United Nations and the international community established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), dedicated to bringing the killers of the former prime minister to justice.
Fifteen years of Syrian occupation had taken a toll on Lebanon. The state that remained after the Syrians’ departure was weak and government institutions were riven with schisms. Nobody looked especially qualified to investigate Hariri’s assassination. As a consequence, the investigation was referred to a special tribunal of four senior Lebanese judges and an array of international judges and forensic investigators.
Despite the international nature of the tribunal, the full cooperation of the Lebanese state and its judiciary remained vital. Any executive measure, such as the arrest or detention of individuals in Lebanon had to be authorised and executed by Lebanese authorities.
Over the years the Lebanese judiciary has fully cooperated with the STL, including financing 49% of the court’s expenditures. However, the tribunal’s recent naming of four senior members of Hezbollah’s intelligence services — Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra — as key suspects in the matter complicated circumstances.
To Hezbollah and other opponents of the STL, the Lebanese judiciary had exhibited laxity in handing over its sovereign rights to a UN quango with little true interest in seeing justice served in Lebanon. One of the principal challenges the STL faces is, ironically, that Lebanese Minister of Justice Salim Jreissati, a member of Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s bloc, is head of the defence team for the four accused Hezbollah members.
Jreissati has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal and demanded the immediate cessation of all Lebanese funding, claiming that all evidence the court possesses is essentially circumstantial and cannot be said to truly implicate Hezbollah.
However, having failed to stop the tribunal, its opponents are exploring potentially more sinister methods to block its work.
Recently, the Lebanese cabinet, headed by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, passed a series of ostensibly routine judicial appointments. A closer examination shows them to be part of a wider trend, however, blocking the advance of officials who supported the work of the STL.
Nearly all the judges who have cooperated with the STL found themselves sidelined and, rather than assuming more senior positions as they might have expected, were replaced by judges who orbit Aoun and his political bloc.
Some might dismiss this as the natural consequence of any transfer of power, with new presidents preferring to appoint and promote their own people. However, such actions undermine the perception of the judiciary and demonstrate, yet again, its persistent inability to check the executive and halt its dancing to a tune of its own calling.
Strangely, one is left wondering why Saad Hariri would sanction such measures, which can only further complicate the task of finding his father’s killers.
During a recent trip to Rome, Hariri declared that he had decided “to put aside our differences to best serve Lebanon.” These differences are neither trivial or so easily surmounted. Not least as they include the fact that Hezbollah, which serves in Hariri’s cabinet, is the main suspect in the killing of Lebanon’s larger-than-life statesman.
Hariri’s logic, it must be assumed, rests on the premise that Hezbollah presents a regional and international challenge that he and his government alone can do little about. Consequently, the STL, representative of the international order, stands the better chance of proceeding, despite Hezbollah’s meddling.
While part of this logic might be sound, Hariri’s approach to the killing of his father exposes two essential flaws: The assassination of Rafik Hariri was not a family matter, which he or any members of his family can place on the backburner, and more importantly, punitive measures against those associated with the STL set a precedent and will be a reminder to all judges within Lebanon that the only means to promotion will be to accept Hezbollah’s very particular interpretation of what Lebanese justice looks like.
Ultimately, politicians need be reminded that at the entrance of all Palaces of Justice, a motto is clearly visible: “Justice is the Pillar of Governance.” Hence a weak and politically enslaved judiciary can only disadvantage the rise of the state.