Is Hezbollah Really Bullying the Special Tribunal?

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's announcement last night was big, if not entirely unexpected: The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon will indict Hezbollah members in the trial established to find the murderers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The ramifications of this, it has since been explained, would be huge.

The Hezbollah secretary general warned that Lebanon would enter a "sensitive" period if expected arrests of party members materialized. If the killing, which has been widely blamed on -- and denied by -- Syria, is found to have been perpetrated by members of a Lebanese political entity, it is logical to foresee potential civil strife.

But just because the man who sits atop a weapons stockpile larger than all other Lebanese factions combined warns that something may happen, doesn't mean it's inevitable.

Nasrallah, by prophesying anew in May of 2008, is sending a message to prosecutor Daniel Bellemare to think very carefully before casting stones of blame. The initial reaction to Hariri's murder laid culpability at Syria's door and led to the withdrawal of Damascene troops from Lebanon after three decades of presence.

This line of investigation was immediately truncated by the tribunal's inception, when four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, held without trial since the assassination, were released in April 2009. Hezbollah has been implicated ever since a Der Spiegel piece saw light along with testimonies from now discredited witness-cum-suspect Mohammed Zaheer Al-Sadiq. Presumably some additional evidence has now come to light that could nail Hezbollah protagonists.

Politicians and commentators from across the spectrum have accused Nasrallah of either intimidating an international court or seeking to preserve domestic calm.

Israel, unsurprisingly, has guffawed at the prospect of renewed inter-sectarian violence. It no doubt views Hezbollah's protestations at the tribunal's implications as contiguous with a perceived slide in popularity for the Shiite party. (In a similar fashion to how Nasrallah insists on linking the STL to the telecommunications espionage arrests).

Its derision over the idea that maybe, just maybe, Saad Hariri would prefer to see stability in his country than bring his father's killers to justice is misplaced. Any indictment won't bring Rafik (or Syria) back to Lebanon, nor would any judgment be as clear cut as people might like to expect. The crime was a perfect act of terrorism, most likely executed by numerous persons and parties. It is unlikely that everyone involved in the killing will see the inside of a courtroom.

Justice at the STL, it seems, may only ever be relative, not absolute.

No one could reasonably argue that Hariri Jnr and family, as well as the relatives of the 22 others slain when Rafik's motorcade was obliterated, don't deserve at least some form of reparation.

But from the Lebanese generals' saga, it appears that the domestic judiciary is out of its depth in this regard. So, however, is the STL. As the first court attempting to indict on charges of international -- even, perhaps, state-sanctioned -- terrorism, The Hague has at times resembled a revolving door of resignations from lawyers protecting their reputations.

It has consistently struggled to get necessary support from concerned countries and immediately backtracked after a senior official was quoted as saying indictments were imminent.

Why therefore, should the idea that it is ready to indict Hezbollah members, be taken as read? Could Nasrallah's announcement not be taken as a warning against kneejerk prosecutions? The tribunal's supporters say that only the guilty would not like to see justice delivered. But that's not necessarily the case. Even the innocent might not wish to see a verdict delivered that could derail Lebanon's coexistence.

Nasrallah has, by saying it was Hariri who broke the news, pulled off a PR masterstroke. What was that other than a way of publicly distancing himself from the infighting he went on to predict?

In the same way as Syria being blamed coincided with a massive rise in anti-Syrian outbursts, Nasrallah may be trying to avoid a similar wave of antipathy towards Hezbollah. Remember that the Syrian allegation, if not yet categorically disproved, at least awaits corroboration.

The STL has a commitment to the people of Lebanon, to "prosecute persons responsible" in its own parlance. But it also has a responsibility to protect the country from slipping back into the period of turmoil and political assassinations that regrettably led to its very formation.