Lebanon wary as Hague trial begins
BEIRUT, 15 January 2014 (IRIN) - These are worrying times for Lebanon; in late December a bomb exploded in the capital, Beirut, killing a former finance minister as well as at least four others. Days later, on 2 January, a car bomb in a southern suburb of the city killed five.
Though the attacks were far from the first to afflict the country, they did suggest that 2014 could be another difficult year as the small Mediterranean state seeks to maintain a fragile peace.
The country is in many ways a prisoner to wider regional trends; the civil war next door in Syria is increasing tension at home, while the political and sectarian polarization seen across the Middle East is playing out in the religiously diverse state. The country is also approaching political paralysis; it has gone without a government since March 2013, as the two rival factions, 14 March and 8 March, engage in seemingly fruitless negotiations.
In this context, one could forgive Lebanese for not wanting anything else that might cause further dispute. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), due to finally start on Thursday, is just that.
The tribunal is an international body tasked with investigating who was responsible for the enormous car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with 22 others, in 2005. Nearly a decade after the killings, the trial is due to open in The Hague in the first international tribunal to deal specifically with terrorism.
Though Lebanon may be captive, the four suspects are not; they are being tried in absentia. The state has been unable to apprehend them, despite evidence indicating they remain in the country.
The four defendants are members of Hezbollah - one of the country's largest political parties, which also maintains a prominent military wing. The party is believed to be providing cover for them, and the 8 March political bloc that it belongs to has long rejected the legitimacy of the trial, contending that the killings should not be handled by international institutions. The rival 14 March bloc, led by Hariri's son Saad, supports the STL and has called for Hezbollah to be disarmed.
The trial is among the most important and incendiary political issues in the country. "The STL has emerged as the pole around which Lebanese politics revolves," said Samer Abboud, an assistant professor of international studies at Arcadia University, who has been a consistent critic of the trial.
"March 14 have supported it, despite evidence of illegitimacy, including [allegations of] false witnesses," Abboud said. "This has forced [8 March] to attack what they see as an illegitimate political process driven by domestic and regional geopolitical interests to undermine Hezbollah."
Karim Makdisi, an associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, agreed that the trial had become politicized, with the initial positive ideals of the STL becoming corrupted by years of infighting.
"The STL is two things at once. In principle, if it had proceeded properly it would be something everybody in this country wants - an end to impunity, some kind of accountability and a signal that people who die actually matter," he said.
"The other one is the more politicized version, which periodically resurfaces as a way to have more political leverage over the opposing side until a compromise agreement is reached."
The vast majority of Lebanese, he added, had already made up their minds one way or the other on whether the accused are guilty.
The greatest fear about the trial is that it will lead to more political polarization and, potentially, further violence. Even its supporters acknowledge that it could exacerbate tensions.
Bassem al-Shab, a member of parliament from Hariri's Future Movement, believes the trial is important because it is "one of the last powerful international tools in support of legitimacy [of the Lebanese state]". But he accepts that it could lead to more violence. "When the prosecution has to make its case and expose all the intricacies, I think it will cause more tension. If there is still no government, then I think [the STL] will pour fuel on the fire."
Abboud believes that a guilty verdict against the defendants would not necessarily lead to more violence, but that serious attempts to arrest the men could.
In May 2008, Hezbollah forces stormed Beirut after the then-14 March government tried to close down the party's private telecommunications network. Dozens of people were killed in days of clashes; Abboud fears a similar situation could arise if the party is threatened.
"Any attempt to try to apprehend the suspects or to de-legalize Hezbollah as a political party will be met with something like May 2008. That is the worst-case scenario," he said.
Other commentators have floated further options including increased sanctions on Hezbollah, which the US and several other states consider a terrorist group.
While the trial is due to start, no verdict is expected in the immediate future. The STL has to pass through four stages - inquiry, accusation, proceedings and appeal - of which the third is due to begin.
Shafic Masri, a professor of international law who has written extensively on the STL, says it will take many months for the hundreds of witnesses to be heard, and future appeals may take years. "International tribunals take time because the defence takes a long time to discuss the merits of the case," he said.
And with Lebanon captive to wider regional forces, the key to reducing tensions may be external.
Hezbollah's primary regional ally is Iran, which supplies many of its weapons. Iran has moved closer to the US in recent months, following the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani; analysts believe a broader regional deal could help Lebanon avoid further violence.
"I think the factor determining whether this will [lead to more violence] is whether there is a regional settlement or not," said Makdisi.
"If there is a deal going on with the Iranians and the Americans and others, it will be calmed down a little bit. But if there is still a very sharp divide in the country and regionally, then this will be taken much more seriously."