Special Tribunal for Lebanon to conclude with whimper rather than much-anticipated bang

A guilty verdict will presumably lead to an appeal, meaning that the trial will drag on for another year or two.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks to the media in front of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague, on September 10.                                                                      (AFP)
Moment of truth. Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks to the media in front of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague, on September 10. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The closing arguments are under way at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Netherlands, signalling the beginning of the end of a tortuously long legal process that began with the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, 13 years ago.

Four members of Hezbollah are being tried in absentia, accused of playing a role in the assassination of Hariri when a truck bomb exploded beside his motorcade outside the St George Hotel near the Beirut seafront, killing the billionaire businessman and 21 other people. A fifth Hezbollah member, Mustafa Badreddine, who was indicted as the alleged mastermind of the assassination plot, was killed in Syria in unexplained circumstances in May 2016.

The closing statements of the tribunal’s prosecution and defence teams have cast media attention once more on a legal process that, by and large, has been ignored since the trial began in January 2014. It seems like a long time ago that the tribunal was a major source of contention during the apex of the political schism between Lebanon’s rival March 14 and March 8 parliamentary coalitions more than a decade ago.

In late 2006, all five Shia ministers — members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition — resigned from the cabinet on the eve of a government vote on a UN draft proposal to establish an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. The vote went ahead and the UN proposal was adopted.

However, progress on establishing the tribunal proposal bogged down months later when parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, refused to table a parliamentary vote to ratify the UN proposal.

Eventually, then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked the UN Security Council to adopt the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which precluded the need for Lebanese parliamentary approval. Resolution 1757 was passed at the end of May 2007, drawing protests from Hezbollah that it was a “blatant violation” of Lebanese sovereignty that only served the “interests of the US political project.”

The opposition of Hezbollah and other Lebanese allies of Syria to the UN investigation and the formation of the tribunal was interpreted as a means of protecting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which was widely blamed for Hariri’s assassination. However, in early 2009, rumours circulated that the investigation had shifted from Damascus and towards Hezbollah.

The rumours hardened dramatically in May 2009 when the German Der Spiegel news magazine reported that investigators said Hariri was killed by a team of Hezbollah operatives.

The report was notably flawed in that it offered no credible motive why Hezbollah would want Hariri dead. Hariri was an appeaser and a compromiser and was not on a moral crusade to drive Syria out of Lebanon and see Hezbollah disarmed — and Hezbollah’s leadership knew that, even if Assad and his Lebanese allies did not. That lack of motive has dogged the prosecution’s case since.

Nevertheless, in 2009, the notion that Shia Hezbollah had killed Hariri, an iconic Sunni leader, at a time of high tensions between these two branches of Islam sent shockwaves through Lebanon and was a near taboo subject left untouched by the media for almost a year. Then, in March 2010, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the subject for the first time in an interview on the party’s Al Manar channel in which he dismissed the rumours and Der Spiegel report as “media and political accusations.”

In many respects, the following months were the climactic battle for the narrative over the tribunal as Hezbollah undertook an inspired communications strategy for dealing with the accusations. It aimed to discredit the tribunal by suggesting that it was a tool to attack Hezbollah on behalf of the West and Israel.

It is true that the UN investigation and subsequent tribunal owed its existence to the will of the United States and France in 2005, both countries viewing it as a useful means of applying pressure on the Assad regime. That the investigation swung towards Hezbollah after three years did not bother Washington or Paris.

The other part of Hezbollah’s media campaign was to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the public by producing evidence that Israel was behind the assassination. In one remarkable news conference in August 2010, Nasrallah unveiled alleged intercepted footage filmed by Israeli drones of the routes taken by Hariri’s convoy on the day of his death as well as the former prime minister’s homes.

It was a brilliant example of strategic messaging. That media campaign and the passage of time since the indictments were issued in January 2011, then made public in June that year and the onset of the trial in January 2014 have dulled the sting of the original accusation against Hezbollah and rendered it almost banal.

If the court finds the defendants guilty, Hezbollah will remind its supporters that the tribunal is an Israeli and US plot to weaken the party and they will agree, while its opponents will say “we told you so.”

A guilty verdict will presumably lead to an appeal, meaning that the trial will drag on for another year or two. The four accused will never be handed over to the authorities and the families of the 22 people killed on that sunny St Valentine’s Day 13 years ago, including the father of Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, are unlikely to receive the justice they demand.