Lebanon News

Rift widens ahead of Cabinet session on 'false witnesses'

BEIRUT: The gap between rival groups widened ahead of a Cabinet session scheduled Wednesday to discuss the thorny issue of the so-called “false witnesses,” threatening to deepen the country’s weeks-old deadlock.

Contacts among rival groups continued until late Tuesday in a bid to find a compromise solution over the issue of “false witnesses,” who the March 8 coalition accuse of misleading the probe into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Government sources, however, ruled out the possibility of Wednesday’s Cabinet session achieving any breakthroughs. The sources said the session was likely to be postponed similar to previous ones that tackled “false witnesses.”

The March 8 demand that “false witnesses” be referred to Lebanon’s highest court, the Judicial Council, but the March 14 coalition says “false witnesses” ought to be tried by the regular judiciary.

The March 14 alliance fears that the investigation of “false witnesses” by the Judicial Council would eventually block the work of a UN-backed court probing the Hariri assassination.

Ministers of the March 8 coalition held a meeting at the Parliament Tuesday to discuss a unified stance ahead of the Cabinet session and put the final touches on a proposal by Speaker Nabih Berri to solve the quarrel over issue of “false witnesses.”

Berri had proposed to ask the Judicial Council whether dealing with the issue of “false witnesses” was among its prerogatives. Berri’s adviser MP Ali Hassan Khalil was tasked with conveying the proposal to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “The ball is now in Hariri’s court,” a senior political source from the March 8 coalition told The Daily Star.

But a government source said Hariri rejected the March 8 proposal and came up with a “legal and constitutional” means to tackle the issue of “false witnesses.”

According to the source, Hariri suggested referring the issue to the government’s Higher Advisory Committee, which comprises six judges including the head of the Higher Judicial Council Magistrate Ghaleb Ghanem.

The government is allowed to name two judges on the panel, the source said, adding that Hariri suggested that one is named by President Michel Sleiman and the other by the March 8 coalition.

Hariri was still waiting for feedback from the March 8 coalition, which is likely to refuse his proposal, according to the source.

Hariri met Tuesday with Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad al-Osseiri, who called on all Lebanese groups to “exercise wisdom.”

The March 8 source said Hariri’s rejection of their proposal meant that things were back to square one, adding that ministers of his group would withdraw from the Cabinet session if the issue of “false witnesses” was not solved.

A source from Hariri’s Future Movement, meanwhile, said the “stubborn” attitude displayed by the March 8 camp meant that the country would plunge into “a deeper state of paralysis.”

Last month, President Michel Sleiman adjourned a Cabinet meeting over the issue of “false witnesses,” avoiding a divisive vote on the issue that could have threatened the government’s stability.

Both Sleiman and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt have been so far opposed to the March 8 coalition’s demands to put the issue of “false witnesses” to vote to decide whether to refer it to the Judicial Council.

The Future Movement parliamentary bloc said the intimidating discourse adopted by Hizbullah and the party’s constant threats had sparked tension among the Lebanese and harmed the country’s security and stability.

Hizbullah has warned the March 14 coalition that a compromise remains possible only before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) issues its indictment into the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Tension has mounted in recent months in Lebanon over the indictment to be issued by the Netherlands-based court. The STL is widely believed to be planning to indict Hizbullah in the assassination. Many fear violence will erupt in Lebanon if the Netherlands-based court points the finger at Hizbullah, dragging the country to the brink of a civil war.

“The Future bloc reiterates its support to the Lebanese Army and security forces’ role in protecting citizens against any aggressions that could tamper with their security and that of private and state institutions,” the bloc said in a statement released following its meeting headed by MP Fouad Siniora. It added that “false witnesses” could only be identified by the STL after the release of the indictment.

Echoing the Future Movement, its ally Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said the so-called “false witnesses” issue was nonexistent until now. “There is no file under this definition until the release of the indictment or even after verdicts are issued. Investigative or tribunal judges are entitled to ask for the trial of false witnesses and then any individual can file charges on a personal basis,” Geagea said.

But Hizbullah’s ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, reiterated accusations against the March 14 coalition of standing behind “false witnesses,” saying this accounted for their refusal to refer the issue to the Judicial Council.

 

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