June 30, 2011, a UN-backed court issued a long-awaited indictment and arrest warrants for four Lebanese Hizbullah members responsible for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
According to the Lebanese media, the suspects include Mustafa Badreddine, brother-in-law of former Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a 2008 bombing in Damascus. Badreddine was said to have supervised the Hariri assassination. He had previously been arrested in Kuwait for planning to bomb the U.S. embassy. Badreddine appears to have a storied history of militancy. According to a federal law enforcement official, and Gary Berntsen, former head of the CIA’s Hizbullah task force and author of Jawbreaker, Badreddine is suspected of building the powerful bomb that blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans.
Also among the four suspects is Salim Ayyash, a Hizbullah member who holds U.S. citizenship and headed the cell that carried out the bombing. Assad Sabra and Hussein Anaissi, also of Hizbullah, were in charge of coordinating with Ahmad Abu Adas, a Palestinian who claimed credit for the Hariri assassination when he contacted Al-Jazeera following the incident.
Hizbullah’s Al-Manar television dismissed the UN court as “politicized” and said it bore the mark of being in the service of Western intelligence agencies. The Iranian- and Syrian-backed group has warned it would “cut off the hand” of anyone who attempts to arrest party members linked to the February 14, 2005, seaside bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.
On June 30, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a government policy statement which failed to clearly spell out whether his cabinet would continue cooperating with the UN tribunal. “The government confirms that it will follow the progress of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was set up in principle to see justice served in a manner that is neither politicized nor vengeful, and as long as it does not negatively affect Lebanon’s stability and civil peace,”1 read the ambiguously worded statement.
As expected, Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on July 2 that the four members of his group indicted by the UN court were unjustly accused and would never be arrested, reiterating that the resistance would not cooperate with the tribunal, which he blasted as having links with Western intelligence agencies.
Speaking on Hizbullah’s Al-Manar Television, Nasrallah said the four men had been victims of a corrupt and biased court aimed at tarnishing the image of “the anti-Israeli resistance.” “[Those indicted] brothers of the resistance have a proud legacy in fighting the Israeli occupation in Lebanon.” “They will not be able to arrest them in one year, two [years], nor in 60 or 600 years will they be able to arrest [them].”
Nasrallah reiterated earlier statements that the international court was a “U.S.-Israeli project” and had several objectives, most importantly sowing civil strife between the different Muslim sects in the country. “The most dangerous objective of the court is to instigate strife, a civil war or a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon,” Nasrallah said. “There will not be sectarian strife in Lebanon, or between Sunnis and Shiites,” he said, accusing some Christians in the rival March 14 coalition of harboring dreams of such a scenario.
Nasrallah questioned the credibility of Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare and criticized the prosecutor’s team of investigators, whom Nasrallah claimed had ties to Western intelligence agencies and had worked against the resistance.
He also said that leaks to the media had been intentional and aimed at tarnishing the image of the resistance, adding that the timing of the leaks of the names of four Hizbullah members was a mechanism to harm and bring down Prime Minister Mikati’s recently formed Cabinet.
Since the STL released the indictments, there has been no real sign that Lebanese authorities are willing to arrest the four suspects, including Hizbullah militant Mustafa Badreddine. To do so, they would have to directly confront Hizbullah.
Moreover, the indictments do indeed threaten to ignite fresh violence in Lebanon. In the six years since Hariri’s death, the investigation has sharpened the country’s sectarian divisions – Rafik Hariri was one ofLebanon’s most powerful Sunni leaders, while Hizbullah is a Shiite group. It has also heightened other intractable debates, including the question of the role of Hizbullah and its vast arsenal, which opponents want dismantled.
Walid Jumblatt, a Hizbullah ally and leader of the tiny Druse sect, warned that the indictments could lead to new civil strife in Lebanon and painted the case as a matter of justice versus stability.
“As much as justice is important for the martyrs and the wounded, so too civil peace and stability is the hoped-for future,” said Jumblatt. “Civil peace is more important than anything else.” He pointed to widespread fears that the case could further divide the country, which has been recovering from decades of bloodshed, including a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and more recent sectarian battles.
Lebanese authorities have until the end of July to serve the indictments on suspects or to execute arrest warrants. If they fail, the court’s recourse is to publish the indictment. The Lebanese government is the body that requested the formation of the STL and is the body that had pledged its full support and cooperation with the STL. In fact, most of the law used by the STL is based on Lebanese law, although the court itself is in The Hague. Hizbullah was part of the cabinet that had initially asked for the establishment of the STL and the previous cabinet that had promised total cooperation with it. But when it became clear that the investigation is moving towards an indictment of individuals connected to Hizbullah, the party embarked on a scorched earth policy of vilifying the STL at every possible moment, initiating a constitutional coup against Saad Hariri’s government, bringing its downfall, and forming instead a pro-Hizbullah government headed by their chosen Sunni ally, Najib Mikati.
However, Lebanon being what it is, things could get out of hand and rather quickly. If the Lebanese government fails to live up to its international obligations under UNSCR 1757, which was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, then the international community will be in a position to force compliance through sanctions and other means.
As an organization that has long described itself as “the resistance” to Israel, the revelation that it also specializes in killing Sunni Muslims will, at a minimum, be problematic. Moreover, the Arab Spring has contributed to a spike in Sunni-Shiite tensions. In Syria, the rallying cry of the largely Sunni Muslim opposition to the Alawite Assad regime has been: “No to Iran, No to Hizbullah!” Given these sentiments, most probably the indictment will be seen through a largely sectarian prism. This will not affect Hizbullah’s grip overLebanon. But the organization’s stature in the wider Muslim world will be irrevocably diminished, and the change in status of this Shiite organization will likewise further undermine the position of Iran and Syria in the region.
It could also undermine Hizbullah in the eyes of Europe, where the militia has long benefitted from the Continent’s tolerant view of the group’s “political” wing. Indeed, given the European Union’s expressed disgust with the ongoing atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime and its growing frustration with the clerical regime in Tehran, the EU might be inclined to adopt an activist role, as in the cases of crimes against humanity that were perpetrated in Bosnia and in Libya.
If the various reports about the UN indictment are examined, what is still missing is the precise role of Syria and Iran in the Hariri assassination. In April 2007, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah’s deputy, admitted that Hizbullah submits itself to the authority of the Iranian leadership on military-operative issues. It is difficult to imagine that Hizbullah would undertake such a sensitive mission as the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon without consulting with Tehran.
Needless to say, Hizbullah has seldom acted as if laws mattered, whether it was the call to disband its military wing, hand over its illegal communication network, or allow Lebanese authorities into its geographic areas. Hizbullah has not shied away from flexing its military muscles to blackmail and intimidate. From this perspective, it seems that Hizbullah has inherited the syndrome of the biblical Samson. If they have to fall or pay the price, there will definitely be those who will also pay the price: in Lebanon, Israel, and whoever is perceived by Hizbullah as being behind the “conspiracy” against it.
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