Friday, 28 November 2014

Who killed Rafik Hariri?

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small...
                  - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
            The wheels of justice, like the mills of God, are known to grind slowly, but the judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time Prime Minister, and to bring the culprits to justice, seems interminable.

            Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront.  In one of cars sat Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, returning home from a parliamentary session in central Beirut.  As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy.  Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city.  In the midst of the carnage Rafik Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead.  Some 200 were injured.  The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two metres deep and, as Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star, the country's chief English-language newspaper, later recounted, he felt the impact in his apartment two miles away.

Ten days later UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack.  In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process.  Now in its tenth year, it is currently under the aegis of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL), a body voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007, formally established in 2009, and now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, comparable to some large commercial enterprise.

Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court, which consists of 11 judges – seven international and four Lebanese – sits in The Hague.  Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, providing them with press releases, court papers, photographs, audio-visual material, fact sheets and basic legal documents. In addition, located within the STL building is a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

How ­– and more important perhaps, why did this complex judicial operation emerge from Kofi Annan’s decision, immediately following the assassination, to send a small investigative team to Beirut?

That team spent a month attempting to get at the truth, but in the end, recognising the logistical and political difficulties, submitted a report recommending an independent international enquiry.  Kofi Annan followed the group’s advice.  He assembled another, more highly-powered, team of Investigators and sent them to Lebanon.  Six months later a second UN report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive.  Since Hariri's convoy contained jamming devices intended to block remote control signals, they concluded that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. The report cited a witness who said the bomber was an Iraqi, who had been led to believe that his target was Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The report concluded that top Syrian and Lebanese officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004. Its findings were based on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime.

So already in 2005 the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon.  In fact, Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion.  Lebanon’s powerful neighbour Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades.  Rafik Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become something of a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.  Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country.  This so-called Cedar Revolution caught the world's attention. A diplomatic coalition was formed, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.

It took another four years of fact-finding by the United Nations International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up.  Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants have not been apprehended and the trial is being held in their absence.  They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Sassad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi.

The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014.  In preparing the case the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with President  Bashar Assad and Syria’s supporters. Suddenly, on Friday November 14, the STL executed a major and controversial U-turn.  It decided to allow prosecutors to present new evidence against Assad, focusing on the breakdown of relations between him and Hariri.  The Tribunal may have felt emboldened to do so by Assad’s considerable loss standing in much of the world during the Syrian civil war. Beirut’s Daily Star reported that prosecutors will seek to expose Assad’s role in Hariri’s assassination.

 “Let’s call a spade a spade, your honor,” said Iain Edwards, a defense lawyer for a senior Hezbollah operative accused of complicity in the attack. “The prosecutor is now basing his case on Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri” – in other words that Assad wanted the Lebanese prime minister killed, and used his security apparatus to achieve his objective.  In effect the Tribunal is raising the possibility that the answer to the question “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” is President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Whether this dramatic development will have the effect of clarifying the issues and speeding the judicial process is dubious in the extreme.  The probable result will be to introduce new complications into the trial proceedings, widen their scope and further protract the hearings into an indefinite future.

“The task of the STL.” said its President, Judge Sir David Baragwanath recently and somewhat redundantly, “is to increase its efforts to complete the task given to it by the Security Council on behalf of the people of Lebanon" a pious pronouncement to which we could all, though without much conviction, say “Amen”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 December 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2014:

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