LEBANON: Nation braces for Hezbollah reaction to indictments
Lebanon is bristling with nervous tension as it awaits the announcement that could spark a new round of civil strife or even another war with Israel, but disaster may not be as imminent as many fear.
It has been nearly two weeks since a prosecutor's office told reporters in the Hague, Netherlands, that the draft indictment in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri would be handed over to the pretrial judge, Daniel Franson, "very very soon." Hezbollah members are expected to be accused of complicity in that bombing, which killed 21 others as well.
The nation has braced for a confrontation between the government and the Shiite militia, which has dismissed the court as a politically charged sham and vowed to fight the charges and prevent any of its members from being taken into custody.
But experts estimate it will take another six to 10 weeks for the judge to review the merits of the case, and even if he confirms the indictment, he can rule to keep its contents confidential. That means the names of suspects -- unless somebody inside the court leaks the names to the media -- probably won't come out before mid-February, if they are made public at all.
"At the moment that the prosecutor submits the indictments to the pretrial judge, there will be a substantive shift in the focus of the work of the [special tribunal for Lebanon], with the judicial taking the lead," Crispin Thorold, chief public affairs officer for the tribunal, told Babylon & Beyond.
The United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon has hinted for months that the indictments against members of Hezbollah in the murder of former Hariri and others would imminent, and some have warned the fallout could paralyze the government and further destabilize the country. Some reports have surfaced in the Israeli press indicating that Israel will be watching Hezbollah's reaction closely.
The prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, is expected to submit his draft indictment to the pretrial judge any day now. Franson can confirm or reject the indictment in whole or in part, or ask for more evidence. In exceptional circumstances, the pretrial judge can rule to keep the indictment confidential if its publication is deemed a threat to the judicial process.
"The Registry within the STL is responsible for serving the indictment on the state where the accused resides," Thorold wrote in a follow-up e-mail. In other words, the Lebanese state is responsible for acting on the indictments and arresting suspects on Lebanese territory.
"It is the responsibility of the state concerned to keep the contents of any sealed indictment confidential whilst they are locating an accused," he added. "Once an accused has been found, the relevant parts of the indictment would automatically become public. "
The investigation has been plagued by leaks from the beginning, however, and there is no guarantee that the names of the suspects would not find their way into the press even if the judge orders the indictment to remain confidential.
These leaks have caused the tribunal to come under fire from all sides, but especially from the militant group Hezbollah and its supporters, who have accused the investigation of being politicized and without credibility.
On Monday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, weighed in, calling the tribunal a "rubber-stamp court" and that he considers its verdicts "null and void."
"We hope the influential and involved parties in Lebanon will act wisely so that this issue will not turn into a problem," he added, in what could be read as a warning to the tribunal's supporters in Lebanon not to pursue arrest warrants against Hezbollah members.
The March 14 Coalition, led by the slain Hariri's son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, continues to voice public support for the Tribunal but has also indicated it would be open to a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Photo: A picture taken on Feb. 14, 2005 shows a Lebanese police officer gesturing on the site of an explosion where former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri and 21 others were killed in Beirut. Credit: Joseph Barraki / AFP / Getty Images