The president of a UN-backed tribunal set up to prosecute the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri made an impassioned plea Wednesday for the country to give the court a chance to show it can dispense impartial justice.
Italian Judge Antonio Cassese also told a group of Lebanese journalists visiting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) he hopes prosecutors will issue an indictment by December in the 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront.
However, he stressed the timing of the indictment is in the hands of prosecutor Daniel Bellemare.
“It is just a hope, not a certainty, because I have no knowledge,” he said.
Cassese’s comments come against a backdrop of increasing anger and suspicion in Lebanon about the tribunal’s work and mounting fears that indictments could re-ignite hostilities between rival Shiite and Sunni Muslims, particularly if members of the Hezbollah Shiite militant group are targeted.
In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.
“There are a lot of rumors in Lebanon that judges may be corrupt … local judges cannot be trusted because they are under the influence of particular groups,” Cassese said of the court that is made up of Lebanese and international judges. “We want to show that our international tribunal can do justice in an impartial way, free from any bias.”
Last week, the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called on all Lebanese to boycott the tribunal, saying all information gathered by the team was being sent to Israel.
But Cassese urged the country to remain engaged with the court, whatever their view of its independence.
“Please, even if you don’t like our tribunal, if you think we are a political tribunal, that the tribunal is paid by Israel, that I am actually the director of Mossad (Israeli secret service) … come and challenge our tribunal, but do take part in proceedings. Make a case,” he said.
Nasrallah’s boycott call last Thursday came a day after a crowd of women attacked two UN investigators and a Lebanese interpreter as they gathered evidence at a private gynecology clinic in Beirut. The doctor who runs the clinic has said the investigators wanted to go through some phone records.
The women scuffled with investigators and stole several items from them.
Hezbollah also has argued that the tribunal is not legal because Lebanon’s cabinet approved it in 2006 after the resignation of five Shiite ministers. Hezbollah and its allies say the government at the time was no longer legitimate because the constitution requires that “all sects should be justly represented in the cabinet.”
However Cassese said Lebanon’s government appeared to give the court legitimacy under international law by agreeing last year to turn over its investigation files in the assassination to tribunal prosecutors.
“That is a scholarly opinion. As a judge, I may change my view,” he added.
Hariri was a five-time prime minister who had close ties with Western leaders as well as Syria and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon’s capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. In the last few months before his assassination, however, he had tried to limit Syria’s influence over Lebanon.
Many Lebanese blamed Damascus for the killing, but Syria has denied having anything to do with the assassination.
Hariri’s death was followed by the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as the March 14 coalition, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.” The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination that was established during Lebanon’s civil war.