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Allan Topol Headshot

A Bizarre Trial for Lebanon

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Sectarian conflict, fueled by the Syrian civil war, has converted Lebanon to a powder keg. Now a bizarre trial threatens to provide the sparks to blow it sky high.

Two weeks ago, four men went on trial for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others. That statement sounds relatively straight forward. But we're dealing with the Middle East where nothing is ever what it seems.

For starters, Hariri and the others were killed in a massive suicide bombing near the Beirut seaside which occurred nine years ago. Second , the defendants will not be in the courtroom. They have never been arrested and are being tried in absentia. Third, the trial is not taking place in Lebanon; rather in Leidschendam, Netherlands, close to the Hague.

It has been a long and tortuous journey to this trial. When the bombing occurred, anyone who followed the Lebanese political situation could deduce what occurred: Shiite Hezbollah members, acting under orders from or at least with the support of Assad in Syria and Iran, the rest of the Shite axis, carried out this attack.

Rafik Hariri was a very popular Sunni Muslim political figure. As prime minister, he faced a unique situation. He was nominally the head of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah, originally organized by Iran to fight Israel, had a veto over any actions the government wanted to take. To enforce its veto, Hezbollah had a more powerful army than the Lebanese government.

Hariri was determined to change this situation. He was committed to restoring real government to Lebanon. To ending Hezbollah's state within a state. That was unacceptable to Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, to Assad, and to their puppeteers in Tehran. Hariri had to die.

Following this outrageous assassination, cries for justice and punishment for his killers were heard around the world. It was unconceivable that the perpetrators of this horrendous deed could be arrested, tried, and punished in Lebanon. The Shiite axis would never let this occur. So the Western Europeans with the support of the United States established a special United Nations tribunal for Lebanon. Its task was to investigate the assassination and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Now five years after the tribunal was formed and spent $325 million, the investigation concluded that the assassination was the work of Hezbollah members. (That was a big surprise.) Four of them were charged with terrorism and intentional homicide; their trial is expected to take several months. (New York Times, Jan. 15, 2014, p. A9.) No one believes these four Hezbollah foot soldiers were the originators of this attack. Yet neither of the primary actors: Nasrallah or Assad was charged.

The prosecutor's case against the four defendants, who are charged with terrorism and intentional homicide and who have been able to evade capture, hinges on records from over 50 cell phones. According to prosecutor, Norman Farrell, these phone records establish how the defendants tracked Mr. Hariri's movements for months, procured the van used in the bombing, and followed his convoy as it left Parliament en route to his residence.

This case represents the first trial in absentia before an international tribunal since Nuremberg. Even if they are convicted, the defendants are entitled to a new trial if they are later apprehended.

With this in mind, it is reasonable to ask: What really can be accomplished by this trial. According to some analysts and diplomats, for foes of Hezbollah and President Assad of Syria, this trial is a "significant step toward what they see as justice against the suspected killers of Mr. Hariri." (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 15, 2014, P. A8.) Others more optimistically contend it will have a cleansing effect for Lebanon and bring about a new era of accountability for that country. This sounds like wishful thinking.

From the beginning, Hezbollah leaders have dismissed the court as proof of a western plot against their organization. They have urged Lebanese groups not to cooperate with the investigation.

Unfortunately, this trial comes at a very dangerous time for Lebanon. Five years ago, no one could have foreseen that Lebanon's normal and long running sectarian conflict would have been in a crisis mode because of the civil war in neighboring Syria. Lebanon is a nation of between 3 and 4 million people and has been forced to absorb 1 to 2 million Syrian refugees. Hezbollah members have crossed the border into Syria where they are fighting and dying.

As a result, Sunni Shiite tensions are soaring in Lebanon. Sunni militants are attacking Hezbollah at their Lebanese base; and every couple weeks powerful and devastating bombs explode in Shiite areas. The Shiites respond in kind, recently killing Mohamed Chatah, a former Lebanese finance minister and one of Hariri's political allies. He had been gathering signatures for an open letter calling for an end to Iran's meddling in Lebanon and Syria.

Even without the trial, this normally volatile nation is on the verge of exploding. Now, there are fears that the trial "will open a new chapter of sectarian violence" in the country (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 2014, p. A9.) Testimony in the Netherlands implicating Hezbollah is likely to provoke a deadly response in Lebanon; convictions will lead to even more violence against Sunnis. They in turn will respond by attacking Shiite neighborhoods. A full scale civil war reminiscent of the one waged decades ago could reoccur.

The prosecutor has done a careful job assembling his case. It is likely that justice will be done in the Netherlands. But at what price for poor suffering Lebanon.