Hariri death trial reopens old wounds in Lebanon

The international tribunal judging the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister will announce its verdict next Friday
Burned branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by earlier protestors, in al-Nour Square in the northern port city of Tripoli on 12 June 2020

AFP/ IBRAHIM CHALHOUB  -   Burned branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by earlier protestors, in al-Nour Square in the northern port city of Tripoli on 12 June 2020

It was on the morning of 14 February 2005 that former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed when a car bomb exploded as his convoy passed in a street in central Beirut. Fifteen and a half years later, a UN-backed tribunal has tried four members of Hezbollah in their absence, on charges of allegedly planning and organising this attack. 

Hariri's death was the spark that lit the fuse of revolution in Lebanon. His assassination sparked massive protests in Beirut and forced Syria to end its military presence in the cedar country, after the UN linked it to the attack. The collapse of the currency, rising inflation and the deep financial crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated political tensions in the country, just as it did fifteen years ago when the situation became more complicated after researchers began to look into possible links between Hezbollah and the death of this politician.  

Last June, clashes between supporters of the Future Movement - Lebanon's political party led by Saad Hariri - and the Amal movement, a Shiite political organization aligned with Hezbollah, led to protests across the country. The verdict of this trial could transform this economic crisis into a political crisis, further exacerbating the divisions that have existed in the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The Iranian-backed organization, however, has denied any role in Hariri's assassination and dismissed the indictment issued by the Netherlands-based court, according to data accessed by digital Middle East Online.

Hariri's supporters, including his son Saad, have repeatedly reiterated that they do not seek revenge or confrontation, and that whatever the court's verdict is, it must be respected. "We hope that 7 August will be a day of truth and justice for Lebanon and a day of punishment for criminals," Hariri's son said a week ago. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - Fotografía de archivo de Rafik al-Hariri, del 13 de abril de 2002
PHOTO/REUTERS - Archival photograph by Rafik al-Hariri, 13 April 2002

In late June, history repeated itself after a missile exploded near the convoy of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Lebanon - a country of some five million people and home to more than 1.5 million refugees - is one of the world's most heavily indebted nations. The state is currently led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, after Hariri resigned following protests that began in the country. This small nation is facing its worst economic crisis since the country's civil war between 1975 and 1990. The protests that began in October to end mismanagement of resources have taken on an unprecedented political dimension in recent months.  

In this spiral of uncertainty and instability, the current prime minister has said that, given the circumstances brought about by the pandemic, Lebanon should avoid riots triggered by the court's verdict. "Confronting the conflicts is a priority," he said via the social network Twitter.   Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are accused of allegedly conspiring to commit the terrorist attack that killed Hariri and 21 others.  According to documentation accessed by Middle East Online, prosecutors investigated the defendants' telephone networks and found that calls were made from different phones to monitor Hariri in the months leading up to the attack and to coordinate his movements on the same day. A guilty verdict could also jeopardize the country's efforts to acquire international aid, according to the newspaper mentioned above. 

"The verdict will be delivered from the courtroom with partial virtual participation," the U.N.-backed tribunal said. Although the verdict was scheduled to be announced in May, it had to be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The attack was claimed by a previously unknown fundamentalist group called Victory of the Jihad in Greater Syria. However, the accusation believes that it could be a false claim, so they initiated the corresponding proceedings. This 'in absentia' trial is the first such trial since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. 

The political crisis in Lebanon has intensified with the resignation of Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti, due to discrepancies with the performance of the Executive led by Diab, as he considered that they were turning the country into a "failed state". "Lebanon today is sliding towards a failed state, God forbid. I had high hopes for change and reform, but reality aborted the seed of hope," he said. In his message, he criticized the government for not working together in the interests of the Lebanese people and insisted that to achieve the reconstruction of the country, it is necessary to have "creative minds, a clear vision, sincere intentions, a culture of institutions and the mandate of the rule of law, accountability and transparency.