For over six long hours, the Lebanese and the world at large listened anxiously to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as it delivered its long-awaited sentence. For many, it was a disappointment. Over fifteen years of investigation and legal process by the United Nations formed tribunal was only able to convict one of the four accused members of Hezbollah and delivered what many saw as a charade of a tribunal, especially since over $ 800 million was spent with nothing substantial to show other than the obvious.
In reality, however, the public disappointment over the Hariri tribunal has downplayed the magnitude of this historic sentencing and what this means for Lebanon, and for delivering justice not only for the gruesome murder of Hariri but to tens of others victims whose culprits are yet to be brought to justice.
The STL has set a precedent – that political assassinations will be fully investigated, with the suspects tried in public. The problem is not in the tribunal itself, but rather in the culture that dominates Lebanon and the wider Middle East, where people talk about justice but fail to observe that justice is not always swift nor is it blind to due process. The people that are responsible for the killing of Rafik Hariri are heartless criminals but criminals still have rights and any evidence that should be presented against them can not be circumstantial.
Thus, the STL was only able to convict Salim Ayach. But it is not just the conclusion of the STL’s 2682-page verdict that is revealing, but rather its reading of the crime, motive, and criminal intent of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime at the time.
The STL was clear in establishing the criminal intent and motives that led the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to kill Hariri. It gave a very detailed reading of Hariri’s role in contributing to the pro-sovereign front known as the Bristol Gathering (see page 173). More importantly, it was able to demonstrate that the entirety of the Lebanese state was under the hegemony of Syria and thus it is impossible to exonerate the Syrian regime from its role in the crime.
The tribunal clearly stated that: “The attack on Mr. Hariri, however, did not occur in a political or historical vacuum and the Trial Chamber cannot ignore the background to the attack as providing a possible motive for it. It does this while noting that motive is not an element of any of the crimes charged in the amended consolidated indictment.”
The fact that it was not able to link the criminal intent to the criminal act is very simple as the tribunal pointed out that the crime scene was under the supervision of the Lebanese state, and either through duplicity or negligence “critical evidence was removed from the crime scene when the six convoy vehicles were removed and taken to the Helou Barracks ‘under the pretext of preserving them’.”
Yet going into the weeds of legal and judicial process of the tribunal waters down the impact of its findings or rather its limitations, as the mandate of the STL limits its “jurisdiction over persons responsible for the attack of 14 February 2005.” In essence, the STL’s mandate granted immunity to Hezbollah and to the Syrian regime – a measure that Russia and China made sure of at the UN Security Council meeting in which the tribunal was established. This get out of jail card thus renders all talk of the responsibility of Hezbollah as futile. Salim Ayach, who belongs and probably commands Hezbollah’s 212 Unit tasked with carrying out assassinations, was not acting alone when he killed Hariri nor was he freelancing for anyone else.
The recent story ran by the Washington Post reported that Ayach was also tasked with carrying out four other hits. This suggests that Hezbollah carried out most of the high profile assassinations after 2005, and that attempting to pin them on Sunni Islamic extremists groups is a red herring.
The killing of Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj in December 2007 is particularly interesting as al-Hajj was next in line to command the Lebanese Armed Forces. This made him a potential risk to Hezbollah, who decided to eliminate him and try to pin it on Fatah al-Islam, an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist faction believed to have been created by the Assad regime.
The STL might not have delivered the justice that the Lebanese people yearn for, but it was able to establish one important fact. While political parties do use force and coercion to achieve their goals, none of the Lebanese parties except Hezbollah operates a transnational hit squad that is responsible for the killing of Hariri and many others. This fact will prove indispensable when French President Macron returns to Lebanon next week to try to convince the world that dialogue with Iran and Hezbollah can be constructive.