So the big news today is the indictment of four Lebanese men by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which was set up in 2007 to investigate the murder of then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This is big news, of course, because this initial indictment could spread to include senior members of both Hezbollah and members of the Syrian government. The names of the accused are Mustafa Badreddine (brother in law of assassinated Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah), Salim Ayyash (a US citizen and a member of Hezbollah), Hasan Aineysseh, and Assad Sabra. Despite the long history of the STL (see Qifa Nabkifor a good review of the history of the Tribunal), this is really the start of the excitement for Lebanon (Qifa Nabki: “just for comparison’s sake, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, established in 1993, is only supposed to start wrapping up its proceedings in 2014, by extension, we could still be in for a very long ride).
A small bit of history first: Lebanon is currently run by Prime Minister Najob Mikati. Mikati was chosen as the Prime Minister after Hezbollah was able to bring down the previous government, run by Rakif Hariri’s son – Saad – because the government refused to end its cooperation with the STL. Both Hezbollah and Mikati deny that the Prime Minister is controlled by the Shi’ite group and insist that the current cabinet is from a unity government. Going back further into history, Rafik Hariri had a complex relationship with both Hezbollah, who has close ties with the Syrian government, and Syria, which was forced to end its occupation of Lebanon shortly after the Prime Minister was assassinated. For years, accusations of murder were thrown around liberally, though it was generally assumed that Hezbollah (with the knowledge and support of Syria) played a role in the assassination of the Lebanese leader who pushed for a truly independent Lebanon. (For a brilliant history of Hariri’s role in Lebanon and the assassination, see Nick Blanford’s Killing Mr. Lebanon – it is a great read. And for more on Hezbollah, check out Hezbollah by Augustus Norton.)
Lebanese politics is a messy game with far too many players to dissect here. Yet the implications of the Hezbollah indictment are clear. Should Hezbollah or any of the higher ups in the organization be indicted, it would seem to verify the accusations that Hezbollah is running Lebanon with little regard for the elected government. Moreover, accusing Hezbollah would potentially reignite the sectarian tensions that consistently hide under the surface of Lebanese life; in 2009, 97% of Lebanese Shi’a and only 2% of Lebanese Sunnis had confidence in Hezbollah Leader Nasrallah.
The reactions to the indictments are predictable: Saad Hariri called the decision a ‘historic moment’ for Lebanon; Hariri’s Future Movement warned the ruling cabinet that it cannot avoid its responsibilities to detain the accused; the March 14 coalition – of which Hariri’s Future Movement is a part – repeated the call for cooperation by the government; the United Nations and the United States have both urged Lebanon to act according to the requirements of the STL; Prime Minister Mikati said the government would act “responsibly and reasonably” and called the indicted “innocent until proven guilty”; and al-Manar, the Hezbollah television station, called the indictments politicized.
The next steps are clearly laid out by the STL:
- The Lebanese Government has 30 days to find the accused, serve the indictments, arrest the accused and transfer them to the STL.
- Should the government be unable to find the accused (after demonstrable effort), the pre-trial judge can request in absentia proceedings.
As always Qifa Nabki gives some good information on the STL and wonders if Hezbollah will send lawyers to the STL. QN argues that since the investigation that has taken place has provided enough evidence to indict the Hezbollah members, they would be found guilty if the evidence was presented uncontested. If Hezbollah sends lawyers to the trial, it will provide a sense of legitimacy to the entire process that the Part of God has so far denied. If it does not send lawyers, the STL would provide lawyers. Hezbollah, then, needs to decide whether it will try to “undermine the court with their own narrative from the inside, rather than standing on the sidelines and pretending not to notice as the STL sails effortlessly toward a guilty verdict.”
Should the STL pursue more members of Hezbollah the decision of whether or not to participate becomes enormous. I also wonder if, on some level, the currently indicted Hezbollah members are simply being thrown to the wolves in an attempt to simply end the entire process. In any event, the next month should prove to be very interesting. Keep an eye on the actions of Hezbollah and the Mikati-led government. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Hezbollah taking down another Lebanese government in order to protect itself.
Photo from Hulubei