The wheels of justice, like the mills of God, are known to grind slowly, but the judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, and to bring the culprits to justice, has seemed interminable.
Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront. In one of cars sat Hariri, returning home from a parliamentary session in central Beirut. As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy. Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city. In the midst of the carnage Rafiq Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead. Some 200 were injured. The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two meters deep.
Ten days later then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack. In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL) was voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007 and formally established in 2009. Now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, it is comparable to some large commercial enterprise.
After 11 years, 415 court sittings and the testimony of no less than 297 witnesses, the STL announced that it would deliver its verdict on Friday, August 7. Three days before, on August 4, came the unprecedented and devastating explosion in Beirut. As a result, and out of respect to the victims, the STL announced that it would postpone delivering its verdict until August 18.
Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court, which consists of 11 judges – seven international and four Lebanese – sits in The Hague. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, providing them with press releases, court papers, photographs, audio-visual material, fact sheets and basic legal documents. In addition, located within the STL building is a media center whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.
How – and more important perhaps, why – did this complex judicial operation emerge from Kofi Annan’s decision, immediately following the assassination, to send a small investigative team to Beirut?
That team spent a month attempting to get at the truth, but in the end, recognizing the logistical and political difficulties, submitted a report recommending an independent international enquiry. Kofi Annan followed the group’s advice. He assembled another, more highly-powered, team of Investigators. Six months later its report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive. Since Hariri’s convoy contained jamming devices intended to block remote control signals, they concluded that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. The report cited a witness who said the bomber was an Iraqi, who had been led to believe that his target was the Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi.
The report concluded that top Syrian and Lebanese officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004. Its findings were based on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime.
So already in 2005 the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon. In fact, Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion. Lebanon’s powerful neighbor Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades. Rafiq Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become something of a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.
Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country. This so-called Cedar Revolution caught the world’s attention. A diplomatic coalition was formed, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.
It took another four years of fact-finding by the UN International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up. Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants were never apprehended, and the trial has been held in their absence. They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi, Sassad Sabra, and Hassan Merhi.
The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014. In preparing the case the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with President Bashar Assad and Syria’s supporters. Subsequently the STL permitted the prosecution to seek to expose Assad’s role in the assassination, and it soon became clear that the prosecution believed Assad wanted Rafiq Hariri killed, and used Hezbollah and his own security apparatus to achieve his objective. Based on recent court proceedings it seems likely that on August 18 Assad and Hezbollah will be facing a verdict of having planned and executed the murder of Rafiq Hariri.
As a postscript, it should be noted that the announcement of the verdict is most unlikely to signal an end to the STL judicial enterprise. Under its terms of reference, either the prosecution or the defense can appeal the verdict, the sentence, or both. These particular wheels of justice are likely to be grinding on for a good few years yet.