Middle East

Lebanese fear choices between truth and stability

Beirut - Woman walks in front of Hariri poster. 30 June 2011
Image caption The UN-backed tribunal has been losing the media war over its investigation

By handing over an indictment and four arrest warrants to the authorities in Beirut, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has started a legal process that is likely to run for several years.

The tribunal is investigating the death in 2005 of the former Lebanese Prime Minister and multi-billionaire Rafik Hariri. His assassination caused such outrage in Lebanon it led to mass protests and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

Amidst fevered speculation as to the identity of the accused, most observers agree on one thing: at least some, and maybe all of them, are from the Shia militant organisation Hezbollah. Hezbollah has vehemently denied involvement.

Last year the Canadian broadcaster CBC reported that the international investigators had found mobile phone evidence suggesting that Hezbollah activists had planned the assassination over a period of several months.

People who have worked on the enquiry say that although the group who murdered Mr Hariri took precautions, they did not appreciate the sophistication of software that enables investigators to reach conclusions about out exactly where phones have been even when they are switched off for most of the time.

Media war

Now the names have been handed over, Lebanon is obliged to arrest and detain the suspects within 30 working days. Since Hezbollah is a strong force in the new Lebanese government, few expect that to happen, in which case the suspects could eventually be tried in absentia.

The performance of the tribunal - and the international investigation that preceded its establishment - has been the subject of an intense media war.

Critics argue that an international investigation was only set up because at the time, Syria was the main suspect. They maintain that had Israel been suspected it's extremely unlikely any enquiry would have been established.

The investigation's credibility was also severely undermined when the initial enquiries led to the arrest of four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who were detained for four years and then released without charge.

Justice of stability

Aware that it has been losing the media war, the tribunal has been employing an increasing number of spokesmen and press advisers to try to advance its case.

While many Lebanese still want to know who killed Rafik Hariri, others have begun to doubt the truth will ever come out. And they fear that if it did then the country's stability could be threatened.

But the tribunal is enshrined in international law and even if the Lebanese government withdraws its funding and tries in other ways to distance itself from the process, the hearings will carry on.

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