BEIRUT — After nine years of investigation costing tens of millions of dollars, international prosecutors in The Hague on Thursday began to lay out their case against four Hezbollah members accused in the 2005 car bombing that killed a former prime minister and 21 others in downtown Beirut.
But while Sunni Muslims remain furious about the murder of their most prominent political figure, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, there were few signs here that the country is fixated on what is unfolding at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon so far away.
Several television stations ran extensive coverage of the opening statements by prosecutors, but few patrons seemed to be watching in cafes in predominately Sunni West Beirut and Christian East Beirut where televisions displayed the proceedings.
In Shiite neighborhoods, people watching TV were taking in the news of a suicide bombing in the predominately Shiite town of Hermel that killed four. The Nusra Front, an al Qaida-affiliated group that operates in Syria, took credit for that attack.
White House spokesman Jay Carney in Washington hailed the beginning of the trial, saying that the United States “strongly supported the tribunal’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for destabilizing acts of violence in Lebanon. The tribunal’s work must continue unimpeded and the perpetrators of these acts must be brought to justice.”
But Lebanese remained focused primarily on the deteriorating situation in Syria, which has begun to cross into Lebanon.
The two events – Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian war – are not unconnected. Many believe Hariri was murdered because he opposed the ongoing Syrian military occupation of his country – by then, Syria had been in Lebanon 29 years – and his death sparked international protests that eventually forced Syria to withdraw. The killing exacerbated tensions between Lebanon’s religious groups, which today generally have picked sides in the Syrian war – Sunnis, backing the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, and Shiites, who generally back Assad.
Many argue that after nine years, the importance of the Hariri killing has been surpassed by wars with Israel and a string of more recent and just as deadly incidents targeting Lebanon. Still, many remember Feb. 14, 2005, as the day when relations between Sunnis and Shiites, who overwhelmingly back Hezbollah, began to fall apart.
“We always respected Hezbollah and (leader) Hassan Nasrallah for fighting Israel and liberating the south,” said Khaled al Fakhoury, a Sunni businessman. “But when all of Lebanon wanted Syria to leave and the response was to kill Hariri, we realized they weren’t Lebanese, they’re Iranian agents.”
For its part, Hezbollah has denied that its operatives had anything to do with Hariri’s death, an accusation that was lodged in a revised indictment that the Lebanon tribunal issued in 2009.
The trial, which is taking place under a mixture of Lebanese and international law, comes after a nine-year investigation that cost Lebanon tens of millions of dollars over the objections of Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies. The initial vote to establish the tribunal, which also has jurisdiction in a number of assassinations of anti-Syrian and Hezbollah political figures, almost pitched Lebanon into a violent abyss in late 2006, as Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the government before embarking on a multi-month campaign to overthrow the Cabinet – then controlled by Rafik’s son Saad. Street fights between supporters of both sides were common, as were sectarian murders and, occasionally, spectacular public assassinations.
In opening statements, prosecutors stayed close to the revised indictment, which details phone records of a series of overlapping networks of prepaid cellphones only used to contact the other phones in the network. Those phones appear to have communicated as Hariri’s movements were tracked and the bomb exploded next to Beirut’s seaside cornice. Immediately after the assassination – which was claimed by a previously unknown militant group that never surfaced again – the network went dead.
Prosecutors claim they can link the phones’ use to four alleged members of Hezbollah, including an infamous operative Mustafa Badreddine, who is widely considered to be a top military and intelligence operative for the group. None of the accused is in custody.
Describing the concentric series of phone networks allegedly used by the assassins, prosecutor Graeme Cameron said that from the end of December 2004 until Feb. 14, 2005, “the phones of the co-conspirators were almost always” everywhere Hariri went. Cameron explained that investigators made that determination by linking the phones through various cellphone towers.
Badreddine and the other suspects live more or less openly in southern Beirut, a situation that highlights Hezbollah’s rejection of demands for cooperation with the investigation and the Lebanese government’s complete impotence in investigating major crimes or making politically charged arrests.
A commonly cited statistic on the streets of Beirut is the failure to ever arrest and convict anyone for a major political crime in a nation that has seen scores of them over the last 50 years.
“Everyone knows who did which killing but the government never convicts or arrests anyone,” said Umm Atef, a Shiite supporter of Hezbollah who asked to be identified only by her nickname. “This is not a government that protects the rights of its people or protects the country from its enemies. It works for the enemies against the people, so why would they investigate? When they do try to arrest someone, it’s for the foreigners” – a reference to allegations that Israel or the West drive anti-Hezbollah sentiment.
The impact of the trial itself – which is expected to last for months – on Lebanon remains to be seen. Most Lebanese already have made up their minds about the case, or remain too cynical about political violence to believe evidence.
“It’s a show trial for the Jews,” said Hezbollah supporter Abu Mohammed Maqdad. “We know this case is nothing but an excuse to blame Hezbollah when Israel killed Hariri. Just as we know Israel and the West sent al Qaida to destroy Syria to hurt Hezbollah and the resistance project.”
Because of early missteps and a highly politicized environment after the killing, in which opponents of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon – and opponents of Hezbollah itself – greatly exaggerated and, according to many observers, manufactured evidence that was later discredited, prosecutors face a tough slog to convince the public that the results of the entire investigation will be credible.
One early report, first leaked and then formally released by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was based on an eyewitness who later recanted, claiming he was pressured and bribed by the Hariri family to implicate Syria.
The investigation’s credibility also was damaged after prosecutors admitted they had no evidence against the four senior security officials – who ran the major security agencies at the time of the blast – who were initially arrested in the case. The officials were held for more than four years before being released uncharged.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero