This is the second part 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: Just a week into his term as justice minister in 2005, Charles Rizk laid a wreath of flowers in Sidon at the graves of four Lebanese judges, killed in cold blood, and whose assassins still walked free.
He was appointed to the Cabinet of Fouad Siniora, a mere few months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who died along with 21 others after a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb rigged with 2,500 kg of explosives in Downtown Beirut.
Rizk, who was the tribunal’s chief Lebanese architect, discussed the court’s creation, some of its key features, the political atmosphere at the time, Hezbollah’s attitude toward the court and the tribunal’s legacy in Lebanon in a one-hour interview with The Daily Star.
Rizk led the negotiations on the STL in coordination with the U.N. Secretary-General’s Office of Legal Affairs. One of the judges he appointed to the task of drafting the tribunal’s founding document is Ralph Riachi, the court’s Lebanese vice president.
He was initially reluctant to cede authority over the case to an international body.
“My role was to do my utmost to have this case be judged by the Lebanese judges,” he said.
But the scene at the graves of the judges was a turning point.
“When I placed the flowers I thought, how can people there ask the Lebanese judges who are incapable of judging the murderers of the four judges, to prosecute the murderers of Hariri?” he asked.
As justice minister, he decided that he could not be “an accomplice to such nonsense.”
“Now when I hear people saying why didn’t the Lebanese judiciary take up this case, either these people are joking, which is a very unpleasant thing to do because it’s no joking matter, or they believe the Lebanese public is stupid,” he said.
From the start, Rizk believed in the need to have a strong Lebanese presence in the court.
The judges would be mostly international, but Lebanese judges would also be appointed.
Today the court’s appeals chamber has two Lebanese judges – Riachi and Afif Chamseddine, while Micheline Braidy and Walid Akoum sit on the trial chamber.
The seat of the tribunal was to be far away from the constant upheaval of Lebanese politics, and the law that the STL would apply would be Lebanese criminal law, with a few exceptions, such as a ban on the death penalty. Lebanon would also fund 49 percent of the court’s budget.
Critics have said the tribunal’s financing is a heavy burden on the Lebanese state. But Rizk said the tribunal, despite nine long years of investigation, is worth it.
“Okay, it costs a lot, but it’s working and now we have indictments,” he said. “Did they measure the cost of this tribunal with the cost of the Lebanese judiciary which is doing almost nothing?”
“I’m not saying that the tribunal is perfect, what I’m saying is that the Lebanese judiciary is non-existent,” Rizk said.
The STL will begin the trial of four Hezbollah suspects on Jan 16. The men have not been arrested, and the court will try them in absentia. Rizk said the decision to allow trials in absentia was deliberate.
“We knew in advance that if they indict people they would not show up, because who can force them? There is no Lebanese state here, no judiciary, no security,” he said.
“We were not naïve, and the main reason we went international is that we doubted the very existence of a Lebanese authority,” he added. “If we hadn’t done so, no justice was possible to contemplate.”
The negotiations over the creation of the STL, in which Rizk took a leading role, began after the assassination of journalist and intellectual Gebran Tueni. The government sent a letter to the U.N. secretary-general requesting the creation of a tribunal “of international character” to prosecute the Hariri assassination and other political killings in Lebanon.
“The people who assassinated Gebran may have accidentally triggered the tribunal’s creation,” Rizk said. “It created such an atmosphere that it was irresistible, it was impossible to accept more.”
Rizk described an atmosphere of threats and intimidation that was particularly intense after the Lebanese request to create the court.
He said he never counted on the official Lebanese security detail of 24 guards assigned to protect him.
In addition to hiring private security, Rizk also often sent his convoy on its way and took a private taxi to his destination, saying he felt safer that way.
The Lebanese negotiators had to gain the backing of the Security Council to create the tribunal, and Rizk said that all the ambassadors of the permanent members backed its creation, including Russia and China, longtime allies of the Syrian regime.
There were also challenges within the government, despite the Cabinet and Parliament being dominated by the March 14 bloc that backed the creation of a tribunal.
The project was opposed by President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria, and opponents later claimed that Rizk had not consulted all concerned government officials adequately.
But he challenged such critics, saying the minutes of Cabinet meetings were available for all to peruse, and that he repeatedly briefed the Lebanese government, presided over by the president, on the details of the negotiations.
At the time, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri tried to block the ratification of the court by refusing to convene Parliament, which had a majority of March 14 deputies. This prompted the Lebanese government to seek the court’s creation through the Security Council.
The council passed Resolution 1757, ordering the creation of the STL under Chapter VII, which provides the council with extraordinary powers to maintain international peace and security.
Rizk said that Berri had made a “big mistake” in carrying out the demands of his allies to block the court’s ratification.
“He made irresistible the temptation to go to the Security Council by making it impossible to go the Parliament and to let the Lebanese decide,” he said. “He gave the people who were for the Security Council a fantastic argument. It was a huge blunder on his part.”
Rizk was also justice minister when the four pro-Syrian generals, Jamil al-Sayyed, Mustafa Hamdan, Raymond Azar and Ali al-Hajj were ordered detained by Detlev Mehlis, the head of the international investigation team.
Mehlis left weeks later, handing over the commission to Serge Brammertz, and then Daniel Bellemare.
Both Brammertz and Bellemare asked Rizk to continue detaining the four men. The first action taken by the STL when it opened its doors in March 2009 was to release them for lack of evidence.
Rizk said he was “very surprised” at the time.
“Why didn’t they tell us before that they had nothing against them?” Rizk added. “We would have freed them before.”
After the tribunal’s opening, the accusations against the Syrian regime shifted to the four men indicted by the court, a development that was criticized including by the tribunal’s supporters, who felt that those who ordered the Hariri assassination were not being held to account. But Rizk said the tribunal’s responsibility was to hold individuals to account.
“The tribunal is made to judge the culprits, not the governments or states or the regime,” he said. “The tribunal is not a regime changer. They are to prosecute and condemn the perpetrators.”
Rizk said there had been a significant evolution in Hezbollah’s stance toward the court.
When caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed a Hezbollah-dominated Cabinet in 2011, many of its ministers and allies in Parliament urged the government to disavow the tribunal, deny its legality and withdraw the Lebanese judges.
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the tribunal as a U.S.-Zionist conspiracy designed to undermine the resistance.
But that hostile Cabinet, Rizk said, funded the tribunal three times.
“When all the ministers, tacitly or not, participated in funding the tribunal, what does it mean? That you have recognized it,” he said.
“You have all of you recognized the tribunal. Stop making fools of yourselves,” he added.
Rizk said this was a “dramatic change” in the party’s approach to the court that ought to be built upon because of Hezbollah’s almost unanimous backing by the Shiite community in Lebanon.
“By tacitly accepting the funding of the tribunal they have shown a certain evolution and we have to work on this,” he said, adding that attempts to discredit the court had been to no avail.
Whether or not the suspects are arrested, he said, depends on broader regional politics and the results of the apparent rapprochement between the West and Iran, under the initiative of Hassan Rouhani, the current president.
“The meaning of the tribunal decision in absentia is moral,” he said. “Nobody is going to go to war against Iran or Syria or Hezbollah to force them to produce these five gentlemen. So let’s take things calmly and prepare for the future.”
The recent assassination of former Finance Minister Mohammed Shatah proves, however, the need for a tribunal and accountability for political assassinations and the “rehabilitation of the country,” he said.
But Rizk refuses to point fingers at anyone for complicity in the Hariri assassination or any other political crimes, or to describe his suspicions, because of his role as head of the judiciary at the time.
“As far as the Hariri investigation is concerned, I am and will always be the minister, who cannot deal into suspicions and things like this,” he said.