Leaks from the tribunal investigating Rafik Al-Hariri's killing raise levels of political tension in Lebanon, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif
When Wiam Wahab -- head of Al-Tawhid movement, a pro- opposition party -- said that members of Hizbullah had been summoned by a UN panel investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, he was not revealing any secrets. For the past two weeks speculation has been rife in Lebanon regarding the issue. Wahab's statement on Saturday 20 March only confirmed the suspicions of many. This week, press leaks were abundant.
On Monday 22 March, the daily Al-Akhbar, a pro- opposition newspaper, referred to unconfirmed reports that the Lebanese general persecutor -- who is heading the investigation into the Hariri assassination -- has sent subpoenas to 18 Lebanese citizens. Some of them, it was claimed, were Hizbullah members or figures close to the resistance movement. According to writer Wasef Awadah in the daily Assafir, "something is being plotted to implicate Hizbullah in the crime."
The leaks coincided with the arrival of a UN investigation team to Beirut that began on Tuesday 23 March filming a three-dimensional view of the Hariri assassination in Saint George, the crime scene area. The 11-man team has been dispatched by Special Tribunal Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. Its mission will also include listening to testimonies and collect information with the assistance of the Lebanese police. The most important task of the team will be to review past testimonies given by witnesses before the UN investigation committee.
Although tribunal officials denied none of the leaks, they brought to the fore questions regarding the tribunal's handling of the investigation. The Lebanese opposition have repeatedly accused the tribunal of politicisation. Some observers say that interviewing members of Hizbullah -- or those close to it -- does not necessarily mean the resistance movement is implicated in the assassination. The tribunal's statue does not allow for charges against countries or organisations, but only individuals.
Omar Nshabe, an expert on the tribunal and crime editor at Al-Akhbar, believes the leaks about members of the resistance movement "were not innocent" but are the result of the ongoing political rivalry between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions. Nshabe charged that the tribunal's media office, which he said was close to March 14, was behind the leaks to the Lebanese and Arab press. Nshabe questioned the tribunal's selection of a spokesperson that made no secret of her political bias against Hizbullah and the Lebanese opposition.
The charges that implicate Hizbullah in Hariri's assassination first surfaced in an article by the German news magazine Der Spiegel in May 2009. The report shocked the nation and threatened to push Lebanon to the brink of sectarian strife between the country's two main Muslim sects. Realising the serious consequences of the charge, Hizbullah immediately responded. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, issued a public statement on the Der Spiegel report, saying it was "fabricated" in an attempt to "create sedition and conflict between Sunnis and Shia, mainly Hizbullah".
But Hizbullah's policy of "constructive ambiguity" has not helped the issue to die down as some party faithful hoped. Nawaf Al-Musawi, MP for the Loyalty to Resistance bloc, said: "We do not comment on everything related to the tribunal." Another senior party official downplayed the significance of the report, saying: "This is no big deal and we should not give the issue more attention than it deserves."
Some beg to differ. Several Lebanese observers warned that such "explosive" leaks could "pave the way for destructive sectarian strife in the country". Addressing Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, Wahab asked "for the sake of internal stability" for an end to the politicisation of the tribunal and such dangerous leaks. "A problem could be sparked because the investigating panel will create strife," Wahab warned in a TV interview Saturday. He advised Hariri to "avoid the trap of the international tribunal".