Lebanon News

Heated debate expected in Cabinet

BEIRUT: Stormy discussions await the Lebanese Cabinet as Prime Minister Saad Hariri is scheduled to arrive in  Beirut from Saudi Arabia ahead of the government meeting on Monday while it remains unclear whether deliberations would tackle the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

However, despite the possible withdrawal of discussions over the STL’s funding to avoid any escalation in the political crisis, the Cabinet is expected to witness heated debate over the issue of false witnesses.

In anticipation of Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar’s submission of his study on the legal framework governing the issue of false witnesses, the Syrian judiciary issued Sunday arrest warrants against a number of Lebanese security and judicial officials on charges of abetting false witnesses, according to former Major General Jamil al-Sayyed’s press office.

Najjar said Sunday he would not comment on the issue of false witnesses prior to the Cabinet meeting but stressed that Lebanon’s four payments made to fund the STL between 2007 and 2010 “is an acknowledgement of the country’s commitment to the UN-baked tribunal.”

Najjar added that allocating funds to the STL’s 2011 budget might not require a decision by the Cabinet since Lebanon had approved the funding package of the Tribunal but was paying it in installments.

“Payment due for 2011 is a necessary extension that might not require a decision in that regard since Lebanon was committed to a package which is Lebanon’s budget with regard to the STL that will be paid in installments,” Najjar said.

The justice minister added that Parliament would eventually have the final say in the issue.

According to Sayyed’s press office, some 33 arrest warrants had been issued by the first investigative magistrate in Damascus based on the lawsuit presented by Sayyed before the Syrian judiciary.

Among the arrest warrants issued two were filed against Detlev Mehlis, former head of the UN investigation committee and his assistant Gerhard Lehman who recommended the arrest of Sayyed along with Lebanon’s top three security officials in 2005.

As The Daily Star went to press, no official statement had been made by Damascus with regard to the arrest warrants while the Future Movement’s press office refused to comment on the issue until the announcement was made official by Syrian authorities.

But Future Movement MP Oqab Saqr expressed regrets regarding the warrants, saying “they constituted a shock to ties Premier Hariri was establishing with Syria.”

Prior to Saqr’s statement, Al-Nahar newspaper reported that Syria’s position vis a vis the STL did not harm ties between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Syrian leadership.

In remarks published Sunday, the An-Nahar daily quoted well-informed sources as saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad had contacted Hariri by phone eight days ago in response to rumors that ties between Hariri and Damascus were tense.

Social Affairs Minister Selim Sayegh said should Lebanon abstain from funding the STL,  the court’s work would continue since the UN would be responsible for securing the funds.

Sayegh added that such a decision would only harm “Lebanon’s image” as a state that failed to meet its commitments before the international community and honor its agreement with the UN.

While ambiguity still surrounds the fate of the article of the 2011 draft budget relating to the STL funding if it is put to a vote in Cabinet, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt raised further doubts Sunday over his party’s position.

Jumblatt, who said last week ministers loyal to him would vote in favor of the STL funding, said Sunday his party would evaluate its position vis a vis the STL’s funding when the issue is proposed.

“The Democratic Gathering embraces independent lawmakers as well as MPs committed to the PSP’s decision,” Jumblatt said.

The PSP leader’s ambiguous remarks raise further doubts over the parliamentary majority’s ability to guarantee a two-thirds majority in the Cabinet to pass the article relating to the STL’s funding to Parliament.

With 10 ministers out of 30, it remains unclear how March 8 parties would succeed in blocking the STL funding, unless one of the five ministers loyal to President Michel Sleiman were to vote alongside their ministers, raising the number opposed to 11.

While both powerbrokers Syria and Saudi Arabia have urged the Lebanese to maintain calm and preserve stability despite the ongoing dispute over the STL, Damascus has lately endorsed Hizbullah’s position condemning the court as politicized while Saudi Arabia continues to voice support for the court.

Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri said that he proposed to Hizbullah the formation of a Lebanese committee which comprised of representatives of the parliamentary majority as well as the opposition in order to contain the repercussions of the STL’s impending indictment.

“Its mission is to contain, as of now, the repercussions of any decision that will be issued by the STL, whether negative or positive, in order to prevent things from getting out of control,” Assiri told the daily pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in remarks published Saturday.

But Assiri denied efforts by Saudi Arabia to delay the release of the STL’s indictment, stressing that the court was an independent entity uninfluenced by any party.

“Any issue that relates to the STL is the speciality of the UN Security Council because this issue is out of everybody’s hands and has been delegated to this international side,” Osseiri said.

He emphasized that Saudi Arabia’s role remains restricted to urging the Lebanese to resort to calm dialogue since the STL has “an international and local dimension and the ongoing debate over it is part of the local political tensions.”

Meanwhile, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he discussed with Syrian officials Madrid’s continued support for the STL, denying that European states interfered in the court’s work to delay its indictment.

Moratinos stressed in remarks published by Al-Hayat that “once the STL was formed then it should go forward until the end.”

Commenting on Syria’s role in preserving stability in the UNIFIL operation area south of Lebanon, Moratinos praised Syria’s constructive role and voiced trust in Assad.

Analysts fear that the UN troops in southern Lebanon could be the target of attacks if tensions break out into clashes in case the impending STL’s indictment accuses members of Hizbullah in former Premier Rafik Hariri’s murder.

On Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem reiterated indirect criticism the STL’s role on the sidelines of the Syrian-Iranian summit in Tehran.

“In line with international law, when a state has a just judiciary and a legal system then it could assume its national responsibility with respect to its judicial system but when the state fails to assume that role then international courts are established,” Moallem said. On Friday, Moallem made it clear that Syria endorsed Hizbullah’s position with regard to the STL when he slammed the court as a politicized entity.

 

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