Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 April 2007
Issue No. 841
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Courting controversy

International and domestic pressure to establish the international tribunal to try suspects in Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination has reached unprecedented levels, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut

As the deadlock between the government and its opponents continues over power-sharing and the establishment of an international court to try suspects involved in Rafik Al-Hariri's 2005 assassination, two senior diplomats are due in Lebanon this week to try to break the impasse over the latter.

In a report, Prime Minister Fouad Al-Seniora's government last week asked the Security Council to establish the court without going through Lebanese channels if necessary. His report was backed by a petition signed by 70 of 128 parliamentary members, who said they supported the court but had been unable to vote on it. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a leader of the opposition, has refused to convene the spring session, questioning the legitimacy of the government and saying the Lebanese must resolve their differences through dialogue -- a position decreed by government supporters as a ruse to avoid the establishment of the court.

Seniora's action raised further speculation that the UN might follow the precedents of Rwanda and Yugoslavia and independently establish the international court, bypassing Lebanese constitutional procedures. Because of the ever-fragile balance between Lebanon's sects and political groups, Chapter VII of the UN charter option has been seen as a last resort -- critics say an invitation to civil war. Hariri's son Saad, head of the parliamentary majority, has expressed support for such a move if needed.

Hizbullah Leader Hassan Nasrallah has criticised the proposed form of the court which he says will "return pre-established verdicts". His deputy, Naim Qassem, has accused the parliamentary majority of seeking to use the issue to control Lebanon and said forming it under Chapter VII would be a "tribunal against Lebanon and not a trial for Hariri's killers".

However, the opposition has approved establishing the court in principle but says it has certain reservations, which have yet to be formally made public. Amal Saad- Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Centre and an expert on Hizbullah, said she believed the opposition did not want to scupper any potential deal on the national unity government by showing its hand.

But its reservations were mostly known, she said. "The most important one relates to retroactive and post-facto application of the tribunal laws which means that files on any alleged crimes committed in the past, can be re-opened. It would also give investigators the right to reinvestigate political crimes in the future, with the likely outcome that opposition figures could be with various offences.

"That falls under the general rubric of the fact that this is a gross violation of Lebanese sovereignty to have them take over the entire judicial process, when you talk about retroactive and future application of these laws as well," she said.

Hariri's Future Movement bloc issued some of its harshest criticism yet of the opposition's stance on Monday. A Future statement said the opposition wanted to divert attention from the culprits "whom if not for shame would have congratulated themselves on their crimes". It called the opposition's reservations concerning the court, "the most horrible attempt yet to sidestep the crime and exonerate those who carried it out. They want a court that finds the criminals not guilty and this is total politicisation of the tribunal."

A UN investigation into the killing is expected to run until 2008 at the very least. Syria denies involvement in the Hariri killing and a string of subsequent assassinations of anti-Syrian figures. Amid increased US pressure on Damascus, Syria rejects the court as a politicised tool to try the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad as a whole and perhaps effect "regime-change". Main opposition group Hizbullah has also expressed concern the court -- whose exact form and remit has yet to be set out -- might be used against it.

Syria is a conduit for Hizbullah's Iranian supplied weapons and also provides political support.

Hariri's assassination on Beirut's waterfront, along with 22 others in February 2005, plunged Lebanon into a political crisis. Many in Lebanon and abroad accused political and military overlords in Syria of the killing, and Damascus withdrew troops that had been stationed in Lebanon for three decades, under the weight of international pressure and domestic protests. A political stand- off between the anti-Syrian, pro-US camp and those who feared Lebanon was moving out of Syria's orbit and into a US-Israeli one has paralysed the country ever since, a situation that worsened considerably following last year's Israeli war on Lebanon in July and August.

In recent months the battle has become increasingly focused on the international court, an issue critics say is deeply politicised. The tribunal is supposed to be established by agreement between the Lebanese government and the UN. But although the Security Council has signed the accord, Lebanon has not ratified it in the absence of parliament reconvening and after the resignation of six ministers in November. Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has also refused to sign.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon dispatched envoy Nicholas Michel to Beirut to break the impasse and facilitate a Lebanese constitutional solution. He was expected to arrive on Tuesday and to stay as long as necessary. Saad Al-Ghorayeb said the opposition was unlikely to present its reservations about the court to Michel, because its stance was that a committee needed to be formed to discuss it and that would lessen the chance of a trade-off on the unity government. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov arrived on Monday with a similar mission.

Legal Expert Shafik Al-Masri said he expected the bilateral treaty, to establish the court, to be approved around the end of April, after Ban visits Damascus on the 24th. "We hope this last diplomatic effort will produce certain positive results. For us that means accepting the holding of a meeting to ratify the treaty, in the presence of all concerned Lebanese parties.

"But if by the end of this effort nothing happens, it is left to the Security Council to issue the statute of the court via a Chapter VII resolution," he said.

Ban said Michel's visit was to offer legal assistance to Lebanon's political leaders to help them with their constitutional procedures. Michel said he intended to stay out of Lebanon's internal controversies, though with the court a pivotal issue in the stand-off that may be wishful thinking.

On Monday, political columnist, Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote in the daily Al-Akhbar, that both Ban's visit to Damascus and Michel's to Beirut may be attempts to avert future blame by appearing to consult with all sides for appearances' sake. Washington and Paris, the two main international supporters of the court, were in any case pushing Ban to complete his diplomacy within the next couple of weeks and to establish the tribunal by month's end, Amin added.

"The opposition's assessment of Michel's visit takes into account the game of 'avoiding censure' on one hand and on the other hand laying a 'trap' which revolves around the idea that the opposition must inform him of its observations on the court draft. This is in order to settle the file on behalf of the majority in such a way that it can be said that everyone in Lebanon and the world attempted to negotiate with the opposition but didn't get anywhere."

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