In Rafiq Hariri’s hometown, many lack confidence in probe into his death

Pictures of late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri hang on walls and in many shops in Sidon. (Photo courtesy: Martin Armstrong)

Pictures of late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri hang on walls and in many shops in Sidon, a majority Sunni city south of Beirut.

Born in Sidon to a vegetable vendor, Hariri gained notoriety for helping to negotiate an end to Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90), rebuilding Beirut’s city centre, and featuring on Forbes rich lists, before being killed by a car bomb in the capital on Feb. 14, 2005.

Locals often claim a personal connection to him, which remains strong on the eve of the 10th anniversary of his death.

“Many people here remember him as a hero. Even though he invested most of his money in Beirut, he never forgot Sidon,” said Abdul Shahan, 23, owner of a perfume store on a street adjacent to Sidon’s market.

Martin Armstrong, Special to Al Arabiya News

Martin Armstrong, Special to Al Arabiya News

“My grandfather used to tell me stories of when Hariri’s father used to come to the market to sell his produce,” said Shahan, adding that in the 1980s his mother travelled to France to study through a grant established by the Hariri Foundation.

Shahan expressed a sense of continued injustice over the killing. In Sidon, confidence in the U.N.-sanctioned court - the Special Tribunal for Lebanon - tasked with investigating Hariri’s death is low.

Credibility

The STL began in The Hague in Jan. 2014 after a lengthy investigation period marred by controversy, staff resignations, and accusations of illegitimacy levelled at the court, principally by Hezbollah.

The STL’s credibility in the eyes of Hariri supporters, who hold Hezbollah and by proxy the Syrian regime responsible for his death, has been compromised by the focus of the trial on only five Hezbollah affiliates, four of whom are being tried in absentia.

“This focus lowered expectations,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut.

“Even if the STL finds the five men guilty, this won’t affect Hezbollah since it has already been accepted that these men acted on their own... Hezbollah as a political entity has been exonerated.”

Mina Ghaith Hammoud, a 62-year-old textile worker in Sidon, dismissed the STL as a “waste of time and money.” To date, the tribunal is said to have cost the Lebanese state over $150 million.

Accountability

Protests following Hariri’s death led to the end of Syria’s 30-year occupation, and heralded optimism that Lebanon could establish an environment of culpability for political assassinations, a scourge of the country’s political scene from the civil-war era.

However, Hammoud said realities since Hariri’s death dispelled such optimism. In Oct. 2012 and Dec. 2013, two prominent Sunni politicians affiliated with the Future Movement led by Hariri’s son Saad were killed by car bombs.

Shortly after the first explosion, which killed intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, Saad blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hezbollah

Since Hezbollah announced its military support of the Assad regime in May 2013, Lebanon has witnessed noticeable outbreaks of violence in Tripoli, and in the Bekaa valley along the eastern border with Syria.

Attacks claimed by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and Jabhat al-Nusra, have targeted not only Hezbollah but the Lebanese army.

Martin Armstrong, Special to Al Arabiya News

Martin Armstrong, Special to Al Arabiya News

Both jihadist groups have aimed to portray the army as subservient to Hezbollah to attract potential Lebanese Sunni sympathizers to their cause, a tactic that has had some limited success.

Sidon has largely avoided spill-over from Syria’s conflict. However, in Aug. 2013 the neighborhood of Abra witnessed gun battles between the army, according to some sources supported by Hezbollah operatives, and supporters of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, in which more than 30 people were killed.

Rumours continue to circulate in the Lebanese press that Assir is seeking refuge in the city’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.

Hussein Sharaffedine, 33, a musician and radio presenter from Sidon’s Hlaliyeh district, says that prior to Hariri’s death it was not uncommon for people in the city to express support for Hezbollah.

“In the 1990s a lot of people were supportive of [Hezbollah]. I had Sunni friends at school who wanted to join and fight against Israel,” said Sharaffedine.

“But first with Hariri’s death and later with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, things became defined in sectarian terms.

“I know of one guy who attended Hezbollah training camps then later began supporting Assir.”

Pragmatism

Michael Young, a political analyst and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle,” warns against over-emphasizing the appeal of groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to the majority of Lebanese Sunnis.

However, Young says fear of heightened sectarian tension in Lebanon has forced the Future Movement to the negotiating table with Hezbollah.

Its willingness to do so illustrates how regional changes since Hariri’s assassination have sidelined the relevance of the STL.

“As has been made very clear, Hezbollah is suspected of being responsible for the assassination of Hariri,” said Young.
“If anything, we’re seeing that a great deal of pragmatism has been introduced into political dealings in Lebanon today that transcends the context of the assassination 10 years ago.

“You still have the official line of those around [Saad] who say the STL will bring some kind of justice, but I think that’s more an official statement than a deeply felt perception.”

Young’s sentiments are echoed by Imad Salame, a political science teacher at the Lebanese American University.

“The STL has lost much of its credibility as an entity capable of attaining justice. The emerging Hezbollah-Future rapprochement sheds doubts among Sunnis as to whether justice will be served, knowing full well that neither the government nor the international community has the enforcement capacity of any verdict,” said Salame.

At most, it will lead to “pressuring Hezbollah toward political concessions.”

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