THE HAGUE: “The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is now in session.” A few simple words at 9:35 a.m. Thursday announced the opening of the most anticipated trial in Lebanon.
But although the trial’s beginning in the Leidschendam suburb of The Hague was simple enough, everything else was extraordinary.
The air of anticipation mixed with tense expectation at the start of the first session quickly gave way to sorrow as the prosecution took the court on a painful trip down memory lane, back to Feb. 14, 2005, when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a seaside area in central Beirut and killed statesman Rafik Hariri and 21 other people.
Delivering the prosecution’s opening statement in the case against four Hezbollah members charged in the case, a prosecutor used pictures and footage to retrace Hariri’s final movements and those of the rigged van, and evoke the chaos, death and destruction that followed the suicide attack.
“No one in Lebanon failed to be affected directly or indirectly by the attack,” STL Prosecutor Norman Farrell said.
The images were too much for some inside the courtroom and among those watching on the sidelines. The widow of Talal Nasser, the officer in charge of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s team of bodyguards, wept in court when she saw the broken frame of the car, realizing her husband too had been torn to shreds in the savage inferno.
“There were things I hadn’t asked about because I didn’t want to know them, and now I heard and saw them,” Ihsan Nasser told The Daily Star after the first hearing. “I hadn’t asked what Talal was like after the bombing, if his body was whole.”
Her voice was shaking as she recounted the moment, but it was not clear if it was the shock of the revelation or the biting cold and rain outside the court’s headquarters.
“But we saw that the car didn’t even survive, and the whole world saw that,” she said. “This is not easy for a human being to hear.”
“This is something we’ve been waiting nearly nine years for,” Nasser said. “We are waiting for justice and truth, and to know a lot more.”
She said the images and scenes shown were difficult to stomach.
“There were things and images and details of the events and the bombing that were very difficult, that brought us back and made us relive the first moments,” she said. “But the entire world must see how powerful this earthquake was, what it did and the impact it had on people, those who died, were wounded or were victims, and their families.”
She said the detailed accounting of the facts showed the court’s attention to detail, and said it renewed her resolve to uncover the truth.
“We want the criminals punished, anyone who had a relation [to the crime] must get their punishment,” she said. “And we have hope to get justice.”
Also present at the proceedings taking place at the Antonio Cassese courtroom at the STL was former premier Saad Hariri, there to witness the start of a long process to prosecute his father’s alleged murderers.
Wearing a black suit, white shirt and a black necktie, Hariri sat quietly at the back of the relatives section of the courtroom throughout the first session. Next to him was his trusted security chief Abed Arab, whose uncle Yehya also perished in the 2005 attack.
When a relative of another victim began to sob at the prosecutor’s mention of her loved one, Hariri quickly moved to comfort her.
He has been the most vocal supporter of the tribunal, and, along with his allies in the March 14 coalition, has withstood campaigns of intimidation and a wave of subsequent attacks and assassinations to thwart the STL’s establishment.
He listened attentively to the presentation, holding back any visible emotions. For most, however, the visceral evidence being shown was hard to take.
“We know all this, but to see it, hear it blow by blow takes you back to that sad day,” said Zaher Eido, whose father MP Walid Eido was assassinated in 2007.
Also at the public gallery was May Chidiac, who lost two limbs in an attempted assassination that occurred just months after Hariri was killed.
“It is a very difficult day,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe as I watched and heard [the prosecutor]; I felt as if I was suffocating.”