For Lebanon, the truth is a poisoned chalice

If Hizbollah insists on shielding the accused from trial, how long would it be before people took to the streets to demand, once again, the Truth?

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When the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005, at least one million citizens massed in the centre of Beirut to demand al haqiqa, the truth. For the previous 20 years, Lebanese of all backgrounds had been killed with impunity. They included the Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt, the Maronite president-elect Bashir Gemayel and the Hizbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi. But most of the victims of warfare, assassination, massacre and random violence were ordinary Lebanese and Palestinians. No one was brought to justice for their deaths, and the criminals behind the crimes were either unknown or known but untouchable. The killing in 2005 of a popular prime minister who embodied the country's demand for independence pushed most Lebanese to the breaking point. Hence, their demand to know the Truth.

That was six years ago. The lust for truth has since cooled. The Truth, and more importantly acting on the Truth, will have consequences. One of these may be to tear the country apart. When the Special Tribunal for Lebanon presented its indictment of four Lebanese, two of whom are senior officials of the Hizbollah movement, to the country's state prosecutor on Thursday, it handed Lebanon a chalice that may poison the country whether it drinks or not.

The Special Tribunal accused Mustafa Badreddine, who inherited his brother-in-law Imad Mughnieh's post as Hizbollah operational chief after Mughnieh's assassination in 2008, and Salim Ayyash, also a Hizbollah official. (Ayyash has the added distinction, alongside many other Lebanese, of holding a United States passport.) The two other indictees, Asad Sabra and Hasan Ainessi, may or may not belong to Hizbollah. Although the Special Tribunal's representatives delivered the 130-page indictment to the state prosecutor Saeed Mirza, the decision to serve or not to serve them on the accused rests not with Mr Mirza, but with the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Nasrallah's Hizbollah ministers were part of the government that initially demanded the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague. At first, the only Lebanese who came under suspicion were four army generals who had been under the direct control of the Syrian military and security apparatus. (Syria had occupied Lebanon since 1976, but it withdrew reluctantly in April 2005 as a result of Lebanese demands and international pressure.) In the past year, however, tribunal leaks pointed more and more towards Hizbollah as part of the plot to kill Hariri. Mr Nasrallah last year threatened to "cut off the hand" of anyone who arrested his party's members for Hariri's death. At the time, he insisted: "We will not accept any indictment to anyone in Hizbollah."

His increasing opposition to the tribunal led to a crisis in the Lebanese cabinet led by Hariri's son, Saad, in January this year. Hizbollah, part of the coalition that kept Hariri in power, withdrew its support. It eventually formed a government under another Sunni, Najib Mikati, that has yet to receive a vote of confidence from parliament. Mr Mikati himself attempted to downplay the indictments, saying that "these are accusations and not verdicts. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty."

Of course, the only forum to determine innocence or guilt is a court of law. To bring the accused to The Hague, they would have to turn themselves in or the Lebanese state must arrest them. Hizbollah, however, is stronger in terms of military force than the state. The choice confronting Hizbollah is whether to deploy that force in defence of its accused members or to support the state's legitimacy by allowing the four to stand trial. If it chooses the first, it will delegitimise not only the state but also Hizbollah's participation in it. If the latter, Hizbollah risks appearing weak in the face of what it regards as a conspiracy by Israel and the United States to discredit it with false charges of conspiracy to assassinate Hariri.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1757 of April 2005 allows the UN to propose economic sanctions against Lebanon if it does not comply. When Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi similarly refused to arrest two intelligence agents for their alleged involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 101 over Lockerbie, Scotland, sanctions punished Libya so severely that he ultimately surrendered them to a Scottish court. Lebanon, which lacks Libya's oil resources and then-dictatorial hold over the population, is if anything more vulnerable to financial pressure than Qaddafi was.

How long will Lebanon's bankers and merchants, who include as many Shia as Sunnis and Christians, tolerate international isolation before banding together to demand that Hizbollah comply? If Hizbollah insists on shielding the accused from trial, how long would it be before people took to the streets to demand, once again, the Truth? Lebanon has experience of protests ending in violence. And violence begets violence. Protests have also achieved goals, notably expelling the Syrian army from Lebanon. Mass demonstrations could conceivably lead to Hizbollah's expulsion from government and new elections that would return leaders determined to bring Lebanon back into the international community.

Hizbollah and its allies achieved 54 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. This, as Noam Chomsky pointed out at the time, was "approximately the same figure as Obama vs McCain in November 2008." Their electoral legitimacy is not in doubt, but their public support may dwindle as the cost of defiance rises. Apart from its electoral strength, Hizbollah has relied on patronage from Iran and Syria. As the Syrian regime is weakened due to growing internal opposition, its reliability as an ally comes into question. In Lebanon, when an outside supporter vanishes (as Egypt did from the Sunnis after Gamal Abdel Nasser's death in 1970 and as Israel did from the Maronites of the Phalange when it sickened of its Lebanese occupation in 2000), the balance shifts. The outcome of any shift is unpredictable and too often calibrated violently.

One weather vane to watch is the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. After the Hariri assassination, he led the movement demanding a Syrian withdrawal and full accountability for Hariri's murder. This put him at odds with both Syria and Hizbollah, whom he believed were planning to assassinate him. Until then, he had been their ally. He made the switch after someone, and he believed it was Syria, attempted to murder his friend and consigliere Marwan Hamadeh. In 2006, Mr Jumblatt asked me, "And how can you survive with a state within a state called Hizbollah?" Mr Jumblatt, however, returned to the Hizbollah camp a few years later. Part of his rationale may have been that the United States did not provide Syria's opponents support to match what Hizbollah received from Syria and Iran. Lebanon is waiting to see if he stands by Hizbollah now.

The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi told me not long after Hariri's assassination, "Who killed JFK? This is just like the story of Hariri. I don't think we'll ever know." Perhaps we will know, but at what price for Lebanon?

Charles Glass was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993 and is author ofTribes with Flags and The Tribes Triumphant. In the summer of 1987, Hizbollah kidnapped him in Beirut and held him for two months. His work can be viewed at