Lebanon's Special Tribunal was supposed to represent an end to impunity for crimes

Michael Young charts the troubling history of the investigation into Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination

A picture taken on April 3, 2018 shows campaign poster for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, for the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary election, hanging in the Tariq Jedideh district of Beirut.
As its first parliamentary vote in nearly a decade nears, Lebanon has been swept into campaign fever: posters on every corner, televised debates, and neighbours bickering over new electoral procedures. / AFP PHOTO / AFP- / Anwar AMRO
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In his testimony last week before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Jamil Al Sayyed, the former head of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, was scornful about the institution, which was established to try those suspected of assassinating Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Mr Al Sayyed recalled giving evidence to members of the United Nations’ commission that first investigated the assassination and telling them: “When I look into your glassy eyes, I realise that Hitler isn’t dead. He’s still living in you.”

The former security chief spent four years in prison as a suspect in the Hariri assassination, before the third lead investigator, Canadian Daniel Bellemare, released him and three other imprisoned former Lebanese security officials for lack of evidence.

Since his release, Mr Al Sayyed has railed against the UN investigation and subsequent tribunal. He was elected to parliament recently, however, so now he can do so with the immunity accorded to Lebanon’s legislators.

Yet Mr Al Sayyed's contempt for the UN investigation is shared, albeit less violently, by the man whom he blames for his incarceration, Detlev Mehlis, the first UN lead investigator and a former German prosecutor.

Mr Mehlis and Mr Al Sayyed might not see eye to eye on much but the German has also taken a jaundiced view of the investigation after his departure in December 2005.

I first reported on Mr Mehlis's displeasure in 2008, at the end of the term of his successor, the Belgian Serge Brammertz. For him, Mr Brammertz, now the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), did very little after taking over from him.

“I haven’t seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward,” Mr Mehlis said at the time. “When I left we were ready to name suspects but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage.”


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I independently corroborated that on the most sensitive aspect of the investigation – analysis of the telecommunications used by the assassins – Mr Brammertz had greatly delayed moving forward. This was later confirmed by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news programme, which found that the Belgian "seemed to be more interested in avoiding controversy than in pursuing any sort of serious investigation, at least according to people who worked for him".

However, far from being penalised for his lethargy, Mr Brammertz was promoted to the former Yugoslavia tribunal.

In 2010, I published a book on post-2005 Lebanon, in which I wrote extensively about the investigation and offered the Belgian an opportunity to give his side of the story. Through his spokesperson, he replied that he was not in a position to comment on an ongoing investigation.

During those years of idleness, Mr Al Sayyed and his colleagues languished in prison. Ironically, one of Mr Mehlis’s criticisms of Mr Brammertz was that his failure to accelerate the legal process harmed the rights of the accused. Yet he also added: “We did find sufficient evidence that [Mr Al Sayyed and the other accused] were involved in the Hariri case. This was not my assessment alone but also that of my commission’s investigators and the Lebanese judiciary."

In fact, both Mr Brammertz and Mr Bellemare were asked by their Lebanese counterparts whether they withdrew Mr Mehlis’s recommendation that Mr Al Sayyed and his colleagues should be kept in prison. Each time they responded no – that is, until the STL was formally set up and Mr Bellemare was asked by the pre-trial judge whether he was in a position to indict those arrested. When he was not, Mr Bellemare found himself obliged to release them.

The Brammertz years were key in the investigation because they came at the moment when it was transitioning from Mr Mehlis's tenure, when the investigative process was being set up, to one where the evidence and testimony for the case were to be gathered.

Yet Mr Brammertz gathered very little, wasting time by reopening the crime scene after three other investigations of the same site. Even senior Lebanese officials dealing with the Belgian later told me that there had been very little progress during his time in office.

Most embarrassingly, the breakthrough telecommunications analysis on the Hariri assassination was conducted by a Lebanese police officer who was later killed for his efforts rather than the UN investigative team. It is that data, later confirmed by an analysis team brought in by Mr Brammertz just as he was about to leave office, that permitted Mr Bellemare to put together his initial indictment in June 2011.

Today, the STL is in more competent hands but it would seem that the damage has been done. Mr Al Sayyed continues to denounce the tribunal but most Lebanese can already see that the UN legal process seems permanently damaged. Hezbollah members have been accused of the assassination but none is in court, nor is ever likely to be.

The STL was supposed to represent an end to impunity for crimes. Most Lebanese will offer a far less generous opinion.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square