Global Policy Forum

Tribunal Opens in Killing of Former Lebanese Leader


By Marlise Simons

International Herald Tribune
March 1, 2009

A new international criminal court convened Sunday in The Hague with a mandate of identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon and 22 others in a car bombing in Beirut in 2005. The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare of Canada, said he would soon ask Lebanon to transfer suspects and evidence and would continue his own investigations. "As soon as I think I have enough evidence against someone or a group of persons, I will present an indictment," he said Sunday.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set up by the United Nations Security Council because it was thought that political conditions in Lebanon did not make it possible for the government to carry out an independent inquiry leading to trials. The case has been dominated by the perception that Syria ordered the assassination. Hariri had been a leading opponent of Syria's political control over his country. Protests after his killing forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after nearly three decades. Syria has denied any involvement in the assassination. The memory of how Hariri was killed - when a van packed with a ton of explosives blew up - appears to have influenced those preparing this tribunal. Based in the former headquarters of the Dutch intelligence service on the outskirts of The Hague, the courthouse has an impressive arsenal of security devices, with an extra focus on forestalling car bombs. Eleven judges will sit on the tribunal. Only four are Lebanese which means that the benches of both the trial chamber and the appeals chamber will have non-Lebanese majorities. Among them are British, Dutch and Italian jurists, whose names will be announced when they are sworn in, in the coming days. Among their first tasks will be deciding if the prosecutor has enough evidence for indictments. Investigators have said the inquiry, ordered by the United Nations more than three years ago, has been hampered by stonewalling and misinformation. The first investigator, the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, said that the planners of the assassination included high-level Lebanese and Syrian officials, among them members of the inner circle of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Mehlis's successors, Serge Brammertz from Belgium and Bellemare have been far more cryptic.

The existence of the tribunal is now expected to put pressure on Lebanese and Syrian officials to cooperate. As other international courts have shown, the threat of international arrest warrants can serve as a sharp political tool. Some diplomats fear that if an investigation reached the top of the Syrian government, it could interfere with the thaw in relations between Damascus and the West. Lawyers familiar with the court said that the tribunal would start its work with a review of the cases against four Lebanese generals imprisoned in Beirut since August 2005 on suspicion of murder and terrorist acts. The four men were detained at the request of Mehlis but were never formally charged. "This is a violation of UN standards, and the prosecutor now has two months to request all the evidence and ask for the transfer of the suspects," one lawyer said. "The judges will determine if he brings credible charges, or else they will release the detainees." In recent days, three other suspects in the case, two Lebanese and a Syrian, were released by a Lebanese judge. Lawyers in The Hague said they did not know if others were in custody. "We keep hearing different numbers; all of this has been surrounded by secrecy," another lawyer said. "Hopefully the tribunal can clarify all this." The lawyers requested anonymity because of the court's rules. The four imprisoned generals, cited in Mehlis's reports as the top Lebanese security officials with close ties to Syria, are Raymond Azar, former chief of military intelligence; Ali Hajj, former chief of the Lebanese police; Jamil al-Sayyed, former director of internal security; and Mustafa Hamdan, former commander of the presidential guard. Any trial will follow Lebanese law for crimes of terrorism and murder. But the UN-backed tribunal, unlike Lebanon, does not allow for the death penalty. It will be a "hybrid" international court, with Lebanese and international staff, backed by the United Nations but operating and financed independently, like similar tribunals in Sierra Leone and Bosnia.

Lebanon will pay for 49 percent of the tribunal's budget, set at $51 million this year; other donors include France and the United States, which originally pressed for the UN inquiry. Other major donors are Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands, which all have seats on the court's management committee. Russia asked for a seat, but when told that this would require a minimum contribution of $1 million, it withdrew, a diplomat said. The tribunal can investigate attacks in Lebanon between October 2004 and December 2005. On a recent visit to the tribunal facility, Robin Vincent, the court administrator, stopped at the center of the building, which is still a large basketball court. "This is an ideal space to convert into a future courtroom," he said, pointing out areas for spectators and for interpreters' rooms. The tribunal languages will be Arabic, English and French. The tribunal was created for three years, but Vincent said the location was available for six years. "Experience," he said, "has shown that no tribunal has finished its work in just a couple of years."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Special Tribunal for Lebanon
More Information on Universal Jurisdiction


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.