US urges Lebanon to act on Hariri indictments

UN tribunal delivers arrest warrants over 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri; Hezbollah members reportedly implicated; State Dept welcomes move.

By REUTERS, OREN KESSLER
June 30, 2011 23:46
Billboards of Rafik Hariri in Sidon

Rafik Hariri billboards 311 R. (photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The United States on Thursday welcomed a UN-backed tribunal's indictments in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri and urged Lebanon's government to act on them.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the indictments and four arrest warrants marked "an important step towards justice and ending impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon."

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The United States has repeatedly said the findings of the tribunal must be respected and has been wary of a new Lebanese government dominated by Hezbollah, which the United States has labeled a terrorist group.

Toner said the United States had not seen the sealed indictments and could not comment on their substance. But he urged the new Lebanese government of Nijab Mikati to act.

"It's important that the indictments now handed over to the special prosecutor now be acted upon. Obviously we want to see this chapter in Lebanon's history closed, and that closure involves taking the next steps," Toner said. "The sealed indictments have been handed over. We're now going to look to see what the Lebanese government does next. We're looking for it to take action."

The long-awaited move was hailed as a “historic moment” by Hariri’s son, opposition leader Saad Hariri, who urged the government of Najib Mikati to cooperate with the court in rounding up the suspects – all four of whom are linked to Hezbollah.

Lebanese Prosecutor-General Saeed Mirza did not disclose the contents of the indictments, but they are understood to accuse four Hezbollah members of involvement in the February 14, 2005, bombing in Beirut that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 others.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for Hezbollah, given what’s going on in Syria and the power struggle in Iran,” said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This could heighten sectarian tensions in Lebanon, potentially leading to violence. Also, Hezbollah’s constituents in the south and [the Beirut neighborhood of] Dahiya aren’t looking for another war with Israel.

“And this further tarnishes Hezbollah’s already diminished stature in the Arab world. After 2006, Hassan Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world,” Schenker said, referring to the popularity boost the Hezbollah chief enjoyed after bruising Israel in that year’s Second Lebanon War. “In 2008, they killed a Lebanese Air Force pilot, mistaking him for an Israeli pilot, then they occupied Beirut and killed over 100 Sunni and Christians, and then there were financial scandals.

“Their reputation is damaged. This will be the culmination of their deterioration in stature in the Arab world.”

The United Nations urged all parties to respect the indictments.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon “calls on all states to support the independent judicial process, in particular by cooperating with the Special Tribunal in the execution of the indictment and arrest warrants,” a spokesman said.

The UN court said the suspects’ identities would remain sealed, but Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper revealed the names of all four men. One of them, Moustapha Badreddine, is the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander believed responsible for many of the group’s bloodiest terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing of a US Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen, and the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina that killed 29 people and wounded over 200. Badreddine replaced Mughniyeh after the latter’s 2008 assassination in Damascus – a strike Hezbollah blamed on Israel.

The Daily Star named the remaining suspects as Salim Ayyash – a US passport- holder accused of leading the assassination cell – as well as Asad Sabra and Hasan Ainessi, of whom little is known. The paper reported that a delegation from the tribunal – the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL – would head to Syria to present its indictments to the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.

Syria, like its close ally Iran, was suspected of involvement in Hariri’s assassination, but denied any connection to the strike. Still, international condemnation of the 2005 killing forced Syria to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, which with its political allies forms a majority in Mikati’s new government, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and has called the court a tool of Israel and the United States. It has vowed not to hand over any of its members and wants Lebanon to end cooperation with the tribunal, withdraw Lebanese judges and halt its contribution to the court’s funding.

Hezbollah gave no immediate response to the indictments, but its Al- Manar television station responded that the decision shows the tribunal’s work is “politicized.”

“Today, we witness together a distinctive historic moment in the political, judicial, security and moral life of Lebanon,” said a statement from Saad Hariri’s office. “I feel the beats in my heart embracing the hearts of all the Lebanese who defended the cause of justice and refused to bargain on the blood of martyrs,” said the statement, laden with nationalist and religious sentiment and employing the word “martyr” 14 times.

“The Lebanese government is invited, politically, nationally, legally and ethically, to implement its commitments toward the tribunal. There is no reason for anyone to run away from this responsibility,” the opposition leader said in the statement. “It is time to put an end to the episodes of killing. The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close.”

Meanwhile, a carefully worded statement by Mikati’s cabinet, which was formed just two weeks ago, after months of wrangling, said it “stressed the [importance of] truth in the crime against Rafik Hariri” and would monitor the progress of the court.

The prime minister said authorities would have 30 days to serve the arrest warrants. If the suspects were not arrested in that time, the tribunal would make the indictments public and summon the suspects to court.

Many in Lebanon fear the tensions caused by the tribunal could lead to renewed street protests and drive the fractious country into a new crisis. Last year, Nasrallah said the group would “cut off the hand” of anyone who tried to arrest any of its members.

Six months after the assassination of Hariri, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were arrested at the request of the UN investigator. A report delivered to the Security Council implicated high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder. The generals were released in 2009 for lack of evidence.


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