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Lebanon awaits what could prove a divisive verdict over the assassination of former Premier Rafiq Hariri 15 years ago.
A ruling in The Hague is due on Tuesday by a court set up by the United Nations in 2007, known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. It postponed the announcement for two weeks after a massive blast in Beirut on Aug. 4 wiped out the country’s main port and heavily damaged surrounding neighborhoods in the capital, killing more than 170 people.
The suspects are four members of Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite group backed by Iran that’s denied involvement in the case and vowed never to hand over the accused. The fifth suspect, a commander, was killed in Syria fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
The proceedings could force a national reckoning on the role of Hezbollah after this month’s devastating explosion had already turned the spotlight on its influence over Lebanon’s fractured politics.
Critics have rounded on the political elite — including Hezbollah — for the corruption and mismanagement that left thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate at the dock for years despite repeated safety warnings.
The group has also come under heavy international pressure, with U.S. sanctions squeezing its sources of funding. It’s blacklisted by the U.S. and Gulf countries as a terrorist group. Whether the court will officially name Hezbollah as the party behind the killing or stop at convicting individuals remains to be seen.
“The justice that will be served should pave the way to lay the foundation for a just and equitable deal among Lebanon’s communities,” said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute. “Hezbollah has had an upper hand in all aspects of life in the country and it’s time to change that through a transition.”
Hariri, a four-time prime minister and billionaire, was the face of Beirut’s multi-billion-dollar dollar reconstruction following the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, becoming the most prominent Sunni figure in the country.
But under Syria’s tutelage that began following the bloody sectarian war, Hariri grew vocal against Assad’s policies in Lebanon.
On Feb. 14, 2005, Hariri was killed by a bomb in Beirut composed of about 1,000 kilograms of TNT. It sent shock waves across the world since he had close ties with the likes of Jacques Chirac, former French president, and the Saudi royal family.
Critics of Syria’s presence in Lebanon blamed Assad for Hariri’s killing. Massive protests that began a few days after the assassination ultimately led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
The February explosion was followed by a series of killings and attempted assassinations of journalists and lawmakers as well as military figures.
The court that’s set to rule on Tuesday consists of a mix of international and Lebanese judges. It’s charged the four Hezbollah members with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
One of them is additionally accused of intentional homicide of Hariri and 21 others who were killed in the blast by using explosive materials. Defense lawyers have said that the prosecution has failed to show any motive behind the killing, arguing that Hariri and Hezbollah were on good terms at the time of the assassination.
Calls for calm have already started pouring in. One of Hariri’s billionaire sons, Bahaa, asked for self-restraint and “avoiding angry reactions” to protect Lebanon.
Hezbollah itself expects the ruling to be a conviction but has vowed not to back down.
“If one of our brothers receive an unjust ruling, as we are expecting, we are committed to their innocence,” the group’s chief, Hasan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech. “The important bit is that as Lebanese we should be aware that some will take advantage of the international court and the ruling, inside and abroad, to target the resistance and Hezbollah.”
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