The United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has handed down indictments making official what has long been assumed: Hezbollah terrorists were the culprits.

Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor for the FT:

A United Nations-backed international tribunal has asked Lebanon to arrest members of the Shia militant group, Hizbollah, as it handed long-awaited indictments in connection with the 2004 killing of the country’s former prime minister and Sunni leader, Rafiq Hariri.

The content of the indictments was not made public. But according to people familiar with the case, they target four people, three of them Hizbollah members, including Mustafa Badreddine, a top operative and brother in law of Imad Mughniyah, the late military commander of the group who was mysteriously assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

The murder of Hariri triggered the Cedar Revolution, which seems to have been temporarily halted in February in a controversy over this very tribunal.


The dispute over the tribunal, to which Lebanon contributes financially, led to the ousting earlier this year of the pro-western government of Saad Hariri, the slain leader’s son, who had refused to denounce the court.

Mr Hariri on Thursday hailed the release of the indictments as a “historic moment” for Lebanon and “a turning point in the history of fighting organized political crime in Lebanon and the Arab world.”

The current government, just newly formed, is backed by Hizbollah and its allies. It agreed on its policy statement on Thursday, fudging the issue of the tribunal by saying that it backed the truth in the crime against Hariri and would monitor the progress of the tribunal.

But Najib Mikati, the prime minister, moved to contain tensions, pointing out that indictments were not a verdict, and stressing the need for national unity.

“We are now facing a new reality in light of the release of the indictment,” he said. “The circumstances therefore require us to act reasonably and prevent those seeking to create strife in Lebanon from taking advantage of the situation to achieve their goals.”

For its part, Reuters reports, Hezbollah has issued a statement calling the tribunal “politicized.”

So, what now?  Nada Bakri for NYT:

The naming of members of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement that is the most powerful actor here, was expected for months. But the issuing of the indictments marked the beginning of a judicial process that could bring unprecedented pressure on the group and its ally Syria, which faces growing isolation over its crackdown on a nearly four-month uprising. According to legal experts, Lebanon has 30 days to serve the arrest warrants. If the suspects are not arrested within this period, the tribunal would then make the indictments public and summon the suspects to appear before court.

Though the statements of Lebanese leaders were restrained, details of the indictment could also prove inflammatory in a country still deeply divided between Hezbollah and its allies, on the one hand, and a disparate gathering of its critics and foes. Only the names were leaked; the details of the indictment, so far, remain secret.

“It’s the beginning of something big, not small,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. But, he added, “Names without a story doesn’t have much impact. If the public comes to see there’s massive evidence of a terrible story, that will have a big public impact by itself, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

The Telegraph‘s Patrick Galey adds:

[I]t is unlikely that the new, Hizbollah-backed government will execute the indictment and hand over the accused.

In the years since the killing Hizbollah has built up the strongest military force in the country. Opponents feared it might even try to provoke a war with Israel to distract attention from the scrutiny to which the tribunal’s findings would subject it.

Presuming that the Mikati government does indeed fail to turn over the indicted Hezbollah terrorists to The Hague, it’s not at all clear what, if anything, the international community will do. AEI’s Danielle Pletka is skeptical that the indictments will amount to much:

So here are the key questions: Who in the Syrian government will be named? Will the international community insist on seeing those accused arrested and tried? And how will the Assad government—now in a fight to the death with the Syrian people—react?

This could have been the icing on the cake of an incredible month . . . the end of the Assad regime, the subsequent wounding of its patrons in Tehran, the public spectacle of the indictment of Iran, Syria, and their proxies for the murder of a former Lebanese leader. But with the United States AWOL from the ructions in the region, taking no position, apparently, on the best outcome for the people of the Arab world, who knows. Who’d have thought that it would be the United Nations setting standards for justice and morality in the Middle East?

And American University’s Josef Olmert is even more blunt.

If Lebanon were a normal country, where government and the judicial system are in full control, the question would be irrelevant, but then Lebanon is what it is, a country traumatized by a long history of sectarian civil war, which means that every important decision of its government is determined by the fear that it could ignite another round of that war. Moreover, the current government is led by Hezbollah and its allies. Under these circumstances, Nasrallah can and will dictate the decision, but will not be able to deny his and his organization’s direct responsibility for the inevitable outcome. A refusal to comply with the International court will lead to a mayhem in Lebanon, as well as to potential international pressures and possible sanctions. Hezbollah can try and provoke troubles with Israel, but the likelihood is low, as Nasrallah will not put in danger the very existence of his organization. On top of that, the Lebanese public at large will realize the real rational for triggering troubles with Israel. Hezbollah will simply prove that they work in the service of foreign, not Lebanese interests.

The mayhem in the offing will revolve around the reactions of the Sunni population In Lebanon. More than a hint was provided by Sa’ad Hariri, the son of Rafiq and the former PM of Lebanon. The young Hariri is in self imposed exile in Paris, fearing for his life after an alleged assassination attempt. It is not so difficult to guess who can be behind this attempt and other threats on his life. However, Hariri issued a message to his supporters , telling them that justice is finally being done, and that those responsible for his father’s murder will not be able to escape their due punishment. His supporters understand the coded message, and they are sure to make their voice heard and quickly. In Lebanese terms it means, that violence is behind the corner.

Omert believes the road ultimately leads to indictments against the Assad regime in Syria and muses “The UN started a process today. It is yet to be determined if it can bring it to an end.” But, like NATO and other intergovernmental organizations, the UN is no more effective than the will of its membership. Having pussyfooted with Assad while he commits violence against his people far more brutal than that of Libya’s Gaddafi, who is of course currently under UN Security Council-sanctioned strikes from NATO, it’s difficult to see indictments confirming what we’ve long believed true in a six-year-old case will be the final straw.

But University of Otago professor William Harris, writing at Foreign Affairs, sees no alternative because the international community has put so much into this tribunal.

In various respects, the STL represents a new direction for international justice. Unlike other special courts, such as those set up for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia, it concentrates on a single event: Hariri’s assassination. For the first time, international justice has extended beyond war crimes and crimes against humanity into political murder and terrorism. The fact that the STL was created by the UN Security Council but relies predominantly on Lebanese domestic law also makes it unique. Other mixed courts involving the United Nations and sovereign governments operate under a combination of domestic and international law. The tribunal has improved on its precedents by having special selection panels for judges and the chief prosecutor, which insulate the process from political bargaining in the Security Council. Unlike the International Criminal Court and the Sierra Leone tribunal, the STL can conduct a trial in absentia, which allows the court to function if it is unable to secure those indicted.

Indeed, the STL will proceed because the Security Council cannot allow murder suspects to destroy an international judicial institution. There are, however, more pertinent measures of success than simply proceeding. First, will the STL be able to convict those who ordered the Hariri assassination and associated crimes, not just those who carried them out? The investigation’s recent interest in Hezbollah personnel probably addresses only middle and lower levels of the conspiracy. If the masterminds of the murder campaign can escape punishment, international justice’s venture into assassination and terrorism will become a farce. Second, can the STL maintain credibility in Lebanon if it becomes less Lebanese? There is reason to be optimistic: half of Lebanon will back the STL in virtually any circumstance, and the skillful deployment of the evidence by the prosecutor over months of judicial sessions has a decent chance of winning over much of the other half.

Neither Hezbollah nor the Assad government have many friends left in the international community. We’ll soon see whether it matters.

 James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: James Joyner