This is the first in a series of articles leading up to the start of trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the court prosecuting those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The series will explore the tribunal’s creation, unsolved political assassinations, and the views of victims in the run-up to trial, which is due to begin on Jan. 16.
BEIRUT: “At 12:49, [Rafik] Hariri entered his vehicle accompanied by MP Bassel Fuleihan and the convoy then departed the Place de l’Etoile.“Hariri and his security detail in a six-vehicle convoy started to drive back to Quraitem Palace via a coastal route, including Rue Minet el Hos’n.
“At 12:52, a Mitsubishi Canter van moved very slowly towards the St. Georges Hotel, located on Rue Minet el Hos’n.
“Approximately two minutes ahead of the convoy, the Mitsubishi Canter van moved towards its final position on Rue Minet el Hos’n.
“At 12:55, as Hariri’s convoy passed the St. Georges Hotel, a male suicide bomber detonated a large quantity of explosives concealed in the cargo area of the Mitsubishi Canter van, killing Hariri and 21 other victims and injuring 231 persons.”
So goes the Special Tribunal for Lebanon prosecutor’s account of the Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005 that claimed the life of Lebanon’s former charismatic premier and plunged the nation into political turmoil. It led to the creation of the March 8 and March 14 blocs, the coalescing of the “Cedar Revolution” and spelled the subsequent end of Syria’s formal tutelage here, as fingers were quickly pointed to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Before Hariri, it was Marwan Hamade. After Hariri, there was Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Elias Murr, May Chidiac, Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, Wissam Eid, Wissam al-Hasan and Mohammad Shatah.
A U.N. inquiry led by Irish commissioner Peter Fitzgerald that began 10 days after the attack blamed the Lebanese security services and Syrian military intelligence for the lack of security, law and order in Lebanon in the run-up to the Hariri assassination, and said the government of Syria was responsible for the political tension that preceded the attack.
Even more damning was the inquiry’s finding that the Lebanese security services were unable to conduct a credible investigation, being themselves responsible for a “culture of intimidation and impunity” in Lebanon.
In response, the Security Council created the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), and its initial reports also pointed to Syrian involvement. The killing of journalist and intellectual Gebran Tueni in December 2005 prompted the Lebanese government to request the creation of an international tribunal to try those responsible for political assassinations.
As negotiations over the tribunal’s statute and rules proceeded apace, political deadlock returned to Lebanon. Shiite ministers allied with Hezbollah resigned from the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who approved the agreement anyway in January 2007 and referred it to Parliament.
Speaker Nabih Berri refused to convene Parliament, which had a majority of March 14 deputies. In response, Siniora and a majority of Lebanese MPs sent letters to the U.N. secretary-general calling for the STL’s establishment.
“The Lebanese government believes that the time has come for the Security Council to help make the Special Tribunal for Lebanon a reality,” Siniora said in his correspondence with Ban Ki-Moon.
On May 30, the Security Council passed Resolution 1757 ordering the creation of the STL. Ten states voted for the resolution, with five abstentions, including China and Russia.
The resolution was passed under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which gives extraordinary powers to the Security Council to protect international peace and security and compels states to follow its decisions. Economic sanctions and military interventions authorized by the Council, such as the liberation of Kuwait, are usually taken under Chapter VII.
The STL, a hybrid court that follows a mix of international and Lebanese law, opened its doors on March 1, 2009. Trial in the Hariri attack will begin on Jan. 16, 2014, nearly nine years after the bombing.
It can try suspects in absentia, the first international court to be allowed to do so since the Nuremberg Trials that prosecuted Nazi war criminals, and is the first international trial for a crime of terrorism.
Reports that the court would indict Hezbollah members surfaced in the press in summer 2009, when the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that a breakthrough had pointed investigators toward Hezbollah and away from the Syrian regime.
The party’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah revealed in a summer news conference in 2010 that the tribunal would indict Hezbollah members. Nasrallah alleged that Israel was behind the Hariri assassination, revealing aerial spy footage taken by Israeli planes of the location of the bombing.
The furor over the STL reached its peak a few months later, as ministers belonging to Hezbollah and its allies resigned and toppled the national unity Cabinet led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri in January 2011.
Days later, the court’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, submitted the first indictment in the Hariri case. It was confirmed in June – the first official details of the case and the names of those behind the assassination were made public.
The court issued arrest warrants for four men, all Hezbollah “supporters,” a moniker the court uses since it cannot prove an individual’s membership in the party: Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra.
The prosecutor alleged that Badreddine served as the overall controller of the attack, Ayyash coordinated the assassination team that was responsible for carrying it out, while Oneissi and Sabra prepared and delivered a false claim of responsibility.
Much of the prosecution’s evidence relied on telecommunications data. The analysis of call data records allegedly revealed several networks that tracked Hariri and were responsible for the assassination.
Hezbollah’s leader rejected the accusations, declaring the court a U.S.-Zionist conspiracy aimed at undermining the resistance. The party would never hand over any of the suspects, he said, and does not recognize the court’s legitimacy.
The STL’s work proceeded. In August, the court claimed jurisdiction over the assassination attempts against MP Marwan Hamade, former minister Elias Murr, and the killing of Communist Party leader George Hawi, declaring them “connected” to the Hariri case.
The following February, the court’s trial chamber determined that all efforts to arrest the four men or inform them of the charges against them had been exhausted, and ordered that they be tried in absentia. Court-appointed defense lawyers began studying the case in earnest, preparing for the start of trial, which was initially set for March 2013, then postponed to Jan. 16, 2014, due to delays in disclosing the evidence to defense lawyers.
The court indicted a fifth suspect, Hassan Merhi, last summer, accusing him of helping perpetrate the false claim of responsibility and being one of the leaders of the assassination team.
The trial chamber also decided to try him in absentia, following efforts by Hezbollah to prevent his arrest. The court will decide soon if his case should be joined to the other four.