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Lebanese Worry About Confrontation Over Hariri Tribunal

Margaret Besheer | Beirut July 21, 2011

In Lebanon, the quest to find out who killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has split the country into two political factions. One camp, known as March 14th, is headed by Hariri's son Saad, and supports a U.N.-appointed tribunal, set up to probe the killing. The other, known as March 8th, is a Hezbollah-led coalition that heads the new government and opposes the court.

Indictments, four arrest warrants

Four sealed warrants were issued on June 30. The court did not publicly name the suspects, but Lebanese and other Arab media have reported their names. If the identifications are correct, all are members of Hezbollah, the Shi'ite political group backed by its own powerful militia, which forced the collapse of the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri in January.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been clear in his rejection of the Special Tribunal, saying it is an “American-Israeli court.” Two days after the warrants were issued, he said Lebanese authorities would not be able to arrest the suspects “even in 300 years.”

But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire Sunni businessman who was backed by Hezbollah for the post, has been more ambiguous. He says his government will “respect” international resolutions as long as they do not threaten the country's peace and stability.

From the other side of the political divide, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies are calling for justice. In a recent televised interview, Hariri said if he was still in power, he would work to arrest and hand over the four suspects to the court.

This political jockeying has caused some Lebanese to worry the country could fall back into a civil war like the one that split it apart from 1975 to 1990.

Along West Beirut’s seafront, not far from where Rafik Hariri was killed, Beirutis from a variety of backgrounds are out enjoying a summer evening.

Jamal, 52, a businessman in West Africa, says if the four suspects are innocent they should go to The Hague and clear their names. He worries what will happen if the trials do not go forward. “If not, I think it's going to be more and more political and there is going to be more explosions and more instability in the country, because of this. Because we have a group here, Hezbollah, it is very strong in the region right now," Jamal said. "Many things can happen with this kind of group.”

Ihab, 31, a website developer, thinks the U.N.-backed court is politicized and not independent and cannot arrive at justice in the Hariri case, and this could lead to violence. “I believe it is more into political. It is unjust. Because so many things happened to accuse Hezbollah only, it is nonsense,” Ihab stated.

Political divide

Fatima and Rabab, both 25-year-old accountants, also worry the court is political. Fatima fidgets with her headscarf as she denounces the Tribunal as a tool of the Americans, British and Israelis. Her girlfriend nods in agreement. Fatima says the issue is only driving Lebanese apart from each other.

“The problem is that Lebanon is divided for two reasons: there are the people who want this decision and the people who do not want this decision, and it will reach us, I think, for a war,” Fatima noted.

But American University in Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan does not think the country is in danger of falling back into an armed conflict.

“I don't think the issue of the Tribunal will lead to further political instability in Lebanon. It certainly will never certainly lead to a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war. I think the situation in Lebanon is well under control. I don't believe the culprits associated with the assassination of Rafik Hariri will ever stand trial in person,” he stated.

The court, which was established by a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, has given Lebanon's government 30 days to find and turn over the four suspects. If they are not handed over, the Tribunal could go ahead and hold trials in absentia. The matter could also be referred back to the Security Council. This would be awkward for Lebanon, which currently holds a non-permanent seat on the council.

Professor Khashan says he doubts the accused will ever stand trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, also known as the STL. He offers a prediction of what Prime Minister Mikati will do.

“At the end of the 30-day period he is going to say, 'We did our best, they are unaccounted for.' And Lebanon can tell the STL that we did our part and look what we did," Khashan said.

But on the streets, Beirut residents do not think it will be so simple. Many say justice may happen eventually, but it may take years as in the case of the former Yugoslavia. They worry though, that in the meantime, the price could be very high.

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