Foreign Policy

A Verdict That Pleases No One in Lebanon

BEIRUT—Lebanon waited 15 years for the answer to one burning question: Who assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri? But when a United Nations-backed special tribunal delivered its verdict Tuesday in The Hague, convicting a senior Hezbollah member, it was met largely with resignation across the country.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon said the Hezbollah man, Salim Ayyash, orchestrated the bomb attack that killed Hariri in February 2005, convicting him in absentia. But it acquitted three others and determined there was insufficient evidence to directly link Hezbollah’s leadership or the Syrian government to the crime.

Despite all the time and money spent on the case, the tribunal could not say who ordered the killing.

For Lebanese, divided across ethnic, religious, and political lines, and reeling from a huge blast that killed 180 people in Beirut this month, the decision contained just the right dose of ambiguity for all sides to find fault.

In the capital’s mostly Sunni neighborhood of Tarik al-Jadida, where Hariri’s Future Movement has long had popular support, there were calls for supporters to gather as the verdict was announced. Only a few dozen showed up. There was no chanting, mostly just disappointment.

“One guy did this murder alone? What is he, the Grendizer?” said Mahmoud Assi, referring to a character from a popular Japanese anime show who can do almost anything on his own. “The only thing that came out is that … the guy had an affair,” he added, referring to what appeared to be hundreds of messages exchanged between one the suspects and his girlfriends.

The army deployed in advance of the verdict amid concerns the conviction of Shiite Hezbollah members could ignite sectarian tensions. Instead, leaders called for calm and army vehicles filled with soldiers rolled past the small gathering. Some of the men who gathered complained about the increasingly dire financial situation. Lebanon’s currency has lost 80 percent of its value in recent months, the price of food and basic supplies have shot up, and electricity has dwindled. Others dwelled on the verdict’s seeming improbability.

“Who ordered it? It was not just Ayyash,” said Waleed Dana, indicating he believes it was Hezbollah. “Ayyash is just a soldier—we want the people who gave the order.”

All four defendants, including Ayyash, were tried in absentia, their whereabouts unknown. Any arrest in the aftermath of the verdict seemed unlikely.

Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri and a former prime minister himself, said he accepted the court’s verdict but had a “message for those who committed this terrorist crime and for the plotters behind them: The age of using crime for politics without punishment and without paying a price is over.”

He also said Hezbollah “should make sacrifices.”

Hezbollah is already facing huge challenges, including U.S. sanctions, a financial crisis in Lebanon, and a protest movement that has taken aim at the group along with the country’s entire political class.

After the Aug. 4 blast that killed 180 people in Beirut and destroyed swaths of the city, protesters took to the streets, using nooses to hang cutouts of some country’s leaders, including Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah—an image that would have been unthinkable here last year.

Among Hezbollah’s supporters, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was always seen as illegitimate—a foreign plot to hurt “the resistance,” as the group often called here.

“I call on every Lebanese official and every citizen to boycott these investigators and not to co-operate with them,” Nasrallah said in 2010, shortly after the tribunal was formed. “If our brothers are unjustly sentenced, as we expect, we will maintain their innocence,” he said last week as the nation waited for the verdict, which was delayed following the blast.

His supporters seemed to be following suit.

On a busy street filled with Shiite religious flags and the flags of Hezbollah, Hussain, who didn’t want to give his last name, was quick to dismiss the verdict as a conspiracy by foreign states meant to create strife in Lebanon and weaken Hezbollah.

“They pinned it on Hezbollah to make a new Middle East,” he said at his shop, its windows blown out by the explosion two weeks ago that destroyed swaths of the city. “They killed an important leader like Rafik Hariri to cause unrest between the people.”

Like many of the group’s supporters, Hussain viewed the verdict as proof that Hezbollah was not involved in Hariri’s death. But he said even if the Special Tribunal for Lebanon had determined Hezbollah was involved, it wouldn’t have changed his support for the group.

Many have also blamed Hezbollah for the port blast with varying theories but no real proof, aside from the large political and military role the group plays in Lebanon. Others have called for an international probe, having little faith in any government investigation.

Hezbollah has rejected the allegations, though it is now clear that at least some of Lebanon’s leaders knew about the nearly 3,000 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s civilian port and did nothing about it.

In a country where political murders have occurred with some regularity, Hariri’s was perhaps Lebanon’s most consequential. For years after the incident, large photos of the former prime minister hung on public walls around Beirut. A massive billboard at the entrance to the Hamra district electronically counted the days since he died—along with 21 others in a massive explosion that shook the city. Many people immediately suspected Hezbollah and its ally Syria, whose presence in Lebanon Hariri had long criticized. In the wake of Hariri’s assassination, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of central Beirut in protests dubbed the Cedar Revolution that eventually led to the end of Syria’s decadeslong occupation of Lebanon.

It was the biggest political upheaval since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.

But 15 years later, the massive billboard counter is down, and photos of Rafik Hariri on the streets are increasingly hard to find.

At one cafe where photos of Hariri and his son Saad are still hanging, patrons said they wanted justice but were more concerned with the increasingly dire economic situation.

“Rafik Hariri died 15 years ago we don’t want to fight anymore, we want to live,” said Ossman Abdel Karim, who works as a driver and like so many here is struggling to support his family amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

There is also a sense of defeat. The few who spoke about justice or revenge also said they could do nothing against the well-armed and organized Hezbollah.

“We can’t do anything. Hezbollah has the country and has weapons,” Abdel Karim said.

Across the table, Mahmoud Halawane listed Lebanon’s political leaders from all sects who have been assassinated over the past 50 years—in a bid, he says, to divide the county.

“Why did they kill Bashir Gemayel? Why did they kill Musa Sadr? Why did they kill Hassan Khaled? Why kill Pierre Gemayel?” he asked. “Because they don’t want a [united] Lebanon.”

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