Tribunal Into Hariri Murder Could Spin Lebanon on Its Axis

An about-face by the current premier and pressure from Hezbollah indicate that what the investigation uncovers may be more explosive than the bombing itself.

The indictment in the murder case of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is still being delayed. The Canadian prosecutor general, Daniel Bellemare, has not finished examining testimony sent by Hezbollah which they say ties Israel to the murder. Meanwhile, a new affair is likely to hold up the trial even further.

Hezbollah is demanding that the "false witnesses" it claims the prosecution has based its charges against the Islamist group around be brought to trial. There is no point in starting the trial so long as these "false witnesses" are walking around free, they say, since if it is proven in their trial that they lied, the prosecution will have to reexamine the proof it has.

And they are not alone in this charge. They have received support from an unexpected quarter - current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri. In an interview last week with the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Hariri admitted that false witnesses "misled the investigators and they have caused harm to Syria and Lebanon" since they had aimed an accusatory finger at Damascus.

Hariri did not go so far as to apologize to Syria for accusing it of the December 2005 bombing that killed his father, but his words were anough to make it clear to the Lebanese and Syrian public - as well as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which consider Syria responsible for the murder - that with or without a trial, Syria's name had been cleared.

However, Hariri's remarks have sent shock waves through Lebanon. At the end of last week, Gen. Jamil el-Sayed, the head of the Lebanese security services at the time of the assassination who was subsequently accused of involvement and jailed for four years, held a news conference in which he demanded Hariri "give [him] back his rights otherwise [he] would do so with [his] own hands." Sayed was freed in 2009 by the investigative committee which stated there was no proof of his involvement.

At the news conference, Sayed accused Hariri and his supporters from his al-Mustaqbal movement of direct responsibility for diverting the investigation and cooperating with Egypt (whose ambassador to Beirut he accused of incitement ), Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, to place the blame on Syria and the Lebanese security forces so as to enflame a civil war in Lebanon.

Sayed is now demanding the prosecutor, Bellemare, resign and is planning to sue those responsible for his arrest in a Syrian court since, he claims, the Lebanese prosecution is preventing him from presenting charges against them there.

In response to Sayed's accusations, the Lebanese parliamentarian Ikab Saker said that the general had sent a mediator to Hariri, demanding that he pay $15 million in return for removing the claims against him and the Lebanese government, and that, when Hariri turned down the demand, Sayed was prepared to lower the price to $7.5 million.

Sayed's demands, together with the doubts about the validity of statements given to the international tribunal looking into the assassination and the internal pressure by Hezbollah to bring the "false witnesses" to trial, have put the prime minister in a crunch. Should he accede to the demands by certain Lebanese figures to cancel the international tribunal altogether and hand the investigation over to an pan-Arabic and Lebanese commission of inquiry - in other words, kill the investigation? Or should he permit the tribunal to continue its investigation and conduct the trial with all the possible implications this will have for the stability of his country?

On the face of it, the tribunal is continuing to conduct its investigation without heeding the impact this is having on Lebanon. It has even begun training about 40 Lebanese attorneys to conduct a trial in which both international and Lebanese law have standing. These attorneys are supposed to serve as the defense for those who will be brought to trial.

However, the political upheaval that took place in Lebanon and Syria after the Hariri murder is not invisible to members of the tribunal. Saudi Arabia, for example, has resumed diplomatic relations with Damascus, and Turkey has strengthened its ties with the Syrian regime and is allowing the free movement of civilians between the two countries. The Lebanese prime minister has changed his tune and renewed the alliance between Beirut and Damascus; Hezbollah has the ability to pick apart Lebanon's security apparatus.

The result of this new political tapestry, which came together only over the past five years, is that Bellemare has not only the fate of the suspects in the case, but also the fate of Lebanon itself, in his hands.

This is too heavy a burden not only for the international tribunal that was set up at the initiative of Lebanon, France, America and Saudi Arabia, but also for the patrons themselves. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, is demanding France wash its hands of any ruling by the court to avoid being "accused of causing a civil war in Lebanon" that could break out as a result of the trial.

For its part, Saudi Arabia is putting pressure on France and the United States to allow the tribunal to expire. France is nevertheless insisting that the trial be held, but could find itself paying politically when attempting to shepherd the diplomatic process between Syria and Israel. At the end of the day, Damascus may force Paris to support replacing the international tribunal with an Arab commission of inquiry.

The United States has stated that the trial cannot be a bargaining chip and that it supports it unwaveringly, but it too is worried about the stability of Lebanon. From its point of view, the trial could turn into a political event just as powerful as the assassination itself. As it sees it, the question of who murdered Hariri can be shelved together with the question of who "really" killed president John F. Kennedy, for the sake of not endangering too many interests.