Inside Story

Fanning Lebanon's sectarian flames?

We ask if the Rafik Hariri assassination trial will bring closure to a troubled chapter or fuel further violence.

Last updated: 17 Jan 2014 11:38
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It was a political assassination that sent sectarian shockwaves through Lebanon and the region.

Now, nine years after the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the trial of four suspects has begun at The Hague.

Hariri was among 22 people killed by a truck bomb in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

To Lebanese people [the trial] means the dream of Rafik Hariri to build Lebanon, the country of constitution, the country of freedom, the country of coexistence. The start of this tribunal is a dream and it's a historic moment for all the Lebanese people. We have been attacked as politicians in Lebanon for years. It is not only the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. We have had so many assassinations for tens of years and we now believe this will be the first time we reach justice.

Kazem Kheir, an MP with Saad Hariri's Future Movement

The billionaire businessman was a Sunni leader; those charged with his murder belong to the Shia armed political group Hezbollah.

The four men on trial face nine charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and murder. They are being tried 'in absentia' because Hezbollah has refused to hand them over.

A fifth suspect was charged late last year.

Hariri's son Saad, who is also a former prime minister of Lebanon, was in court to watch the start of proceedings.

He said the trial marked an important step for Lebanon: "Today for the first time this act of terror that happened in Lebanon hopefully will see the time of impunity ending and the time of justice coming."

The trial opened against a backdrop of ongoing sectarian violence in a country where the Syrian war has spilled over with increasing frequency.

Even as the hearing began, a car bomb exploded in the Hezbollah-stronghold of Hermel in northern Lebanon, close to the border with Syria.

The case is being heard by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (SLT). The SLT was established by the United Nations in 2007, at Lebanon's request, to deal specifically with the Hariri attack.

The court is the first of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime, and the first international tribunal to try crimes under national law - in this case, Lebanese law.

Critics say the trial is politically motivated and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed it as a US-Israeli conspiracy.

He has refused to hand over the suspects, adding: "No Lebanese government will be able to make any arrests, whether in 30 days, 30 years or even 300 years."

Lebanon is a country plagued by political killings. There have been more than a dozen high profile assassinations since Hariri's death.

The latest was former finance minister Mohamad Chatah, who was killed in a car bomb attack in December, close to the site of Hariri's assassination. He was an adviser to Saad Hariri, and a critic of Syria and Hezbollah.

Sunni, Christian, Druze and Shia figures have all been targeted, as well as members of the army and security forces, but as yet, no one has been held accountable for any of the deaths.

So, will the tribunal mark the first time suspects have been held to account? Will it bring closure to a troubled chapter in Lebanon's history? Or will the trial further inflame sectarian tensions?

To discuss this Inside Story presenter Laura Kyle is joined by guests: Kazem Kheir, an MP with Saad Hariri's Future Movement, the largest member of the March 14 Alliance; Nicholas Noe, an author and scholar; and Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut.

"I think Hezbollah's position on the tribunal is very clear, and they reject it .... It is obvious for them that this is a political tribunal coordinated by different world powers in order to corner Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. At the time of the composition of the tribunal and even before ... was, for them at least, an indication that this was going to be a political trial."

Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut


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