Even partial justice leaves Lebanon in a quandary

The Special Tribunal's indictments put Lebanon in a difficult situation. Not only is there sharp domestic disagreement, but international pressures will come to bear as well.

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On Thursday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon sent an indictment in the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to Lebanon's judiciary. Many cheered that justice had finally arrived. The optimism may be misplaced. After six years of investigation only four suspects were named, although Mr Hariri was the victim of a vast conspiracy.

The Lebanese government has 30 days to arrest the individuals, believed to be members of Hizbollah. The indictment was sealed yet their names were immediately leaked. Two of the men are Mustapha Badreddine, a cousin, brother in law and collaborator of Imad Mughnieh, the party's late military leader; and Salim Ayyash, who allegedly led the cell participating in Mr Hariri's killing. The others are unknown. Both may be Hizbollah militants, but their role and affiliation will only be known once the indictment is made public.

The tribunal has divided the Lebanese for years. The fact that Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, revealed last summer that party members would be implicated (although he used the disclosure to dismiss the tribunal as a "politicised" institution) cushioned the blow of last week's announcements. However, on the political front, the government of Prime Minister Najib Miqati, which is dominated by Hizbollah and its ally Michel Aoun, is in for difficult times ahead, even as it has barely begun to function.

If Lebanon fails to take the suspects into custody, this will lead to heightened tension between Mr Miqati and his domestic opponents in the March 14 coalition. Just as seriously, the international community, and the special tribunal in particular, will not take it lightly if the cabinet, over which Hizbollah has substantial sway, announces that it is unable to detain the suspects. Lebanon could find itself facing Security Council opprobrium, which will otherwise not prevent the tribunal from trying the suspects in absentia.

Mr Miqati has declared that his ministers would behave "responsibly" with respect to the indictment. However, the prime minister is the weak link in the impending phase of sharpened political polarisation. On the one hand he will have to satisfy the demands of Hizbollah and the Aounists, who have condemned the tribunal. On the other, he cannot afford to lose support among his Sunni coreligionists by appearing to cover for a party they believe helped to murder Mr Hariri, a communal champion. If Mr Miqati loses what Sunni legitimacy he retains, his days in office will be numbered.

What worries the prime minister most is the reaction overseas. Mr Miqati, a well-connected businessman, has an acute sense of how international displeasure might lead to measures undermining economic confidence in Lebanon, essential for stability and civil peace in the country. The US House of Representatives is drafting a bill to prevent American funding from reaching Hizbollah through the Lebanese government. A Lebanese bank has been in the US Treasury Department's crosshairs for money laundering on Hizbollah's behalf. Mr Miqati does not need a dispute with the United Nations, especially with its permanent Security Council members, over Hizbollah's refusal to surrender suspects to the special tribunal. Nevertheless, that could be where Lebanon is heading, unless Hizbollah changes its mind or Mr Miqati resigns.

From a judicial perspective, the scope of the tribunal's indictment is disappointing. A preliminary United Nations inquiry after Mr Hariri was killed in February 2005, like the international investigation that followed, concluded that the crime had been a plot that included the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. The theory was never abandoned, even if the last UN investigator, Daniel Bellemare, now the tribunal prosecutor, only had evidence to focus on Hizbollah.

In a 2006 report, UN investigators advanced an important hypothesis that "there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur". If we assume, as investigators did at the time, that the Syrian regime, then all-powerful in Lebanon, commissioned the crime; and if the perpetrator was a suicide bomber, as the investigative commission established; then this implies that the suspects named in the indictment will most probably be accused of having enabled the crime.

But what about those who ordered the crime? It is unclear whether Mr Bellemare's indictment will stop where we are today. He may issue new indictments, encompassing Syrians, perhaps a necessary step to identify a motive for Mr Hariri's elimination. Media reports have hinted this could soon happen. However, nothing yet proves it will happen, or that fresh indictments will be confirmed. Nevertheless, how odd, if the prosecutor has enough to arrest Syrian suspects, for him to start the indictment process against relatively low-level figures who only facilitated the action.

We should give Mr Bellemare the benefit of the doubt. However, in researching my book on Lebanon after the Hariri assassination, I interviewed Lebanese officials and former international investigators who criticised his predecessor, Serge Brammertz, for his lethargic approach to the Syrian angle of the investigation. Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the international commission, told me in 2008, as Mr Brammertz was preparing to leave office, that he had seen no real advances in the investigation. "When I left [at the end of 2005] we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage," Mr Mehlis said.

If true, Mr Bellemare's indictment, with its concentration on Hizbollah, may be all we see from the special tribunal for now. That will not reassure Mr Miqati as Lebanon's prime minister, but the limited reach of the prosecution's case would be easier to contain than a trial drawing in senior Syrian and Lebanese figures. That said, years of work for so small a catch is hardly something to celebrate.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle