Hariri or Harakiri? Indictments Come at Key Moment for Hezbollah's Nasrallah

The United Nations Special Tribunal has indicted four senior Hezbollah members for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is raging against the West, Israel and SPIEGEL. The indictments come at a time of financial woes for Hezbollah, but also one in which the Shiite group has massively increased its power.


By Erich Follath

Hassan Nasrallah is a stern man, as uncompromising toward others as he is toward himself. While giving an inspirational speech to his troops in 1997, the Hezbollah leader was handed a slip of paper. His son Hadi had just been killed in a gun battle with the Israelis. Nasrallah carried on as if nothing had happened, indicating that there would be time enough for mourning later. For the secretary general of the radical Shiite "Party of God," everything has a higher purpose. His mandate is "resistance" against Israel and the political reshaping of Lebanon -- under his ideological leadership, of course.

Triumph and loss have rarely coincided as closely in the life of Nasrallah, 50, as they have in recent days. He was instrumental in bringing the new government in Beirut into office a few weeks ago. But on the Thursday before last, a United Nations special tribunal indicted some of his closest associates on murder charges. Nasrallah, who is highly popular in the Arab world, maintains excellent relations with Syria and Iran and is secretly in talks with Turkey and France, will now play a key role. Whether and how he performs that role will be critical to shaping the future of the entire Middle East.

In a television address to the people, Nasrallah called the four Hezbollah members indicted by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is based near The Hague, "brothers with an honorable past." The accused would not be extradited, he said, "not in 30 days, and not in 30 years," and he warned that he would "cut off the hand" of anyone who tried. He called the tribunal an "American-Israeli conspiracy" that aimed to reignite the civil war in Lebanon.

The crime that took place at 12:56 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2005, Valentine's Day, was a monstrous one. A giant bomb exploded in front of the Hotel St. Georges in Beirut just as the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was driving by. In addition to the former prime minister, nicknamed "Mister Lebanon," 20 people, including bodyguards and passersby, died in the inferno. The incident rocked the Arab world. Why did Hariri have to die? Who committed the crime, and who were the backers?

At the request of the Lebanese government, the United Nations would soon tackle the case. An ad hoc criminal court was created in 2007, the first in UN history to address a terrorist crime. Beirut agreed to pay a portion of the costs of the international body. Saad Hariri, 41, who considered the investigation of his father's murder to be above all political considerations, was especially committed to the STL.

The tribunal was periodically in the news. Detlev Mehlis, its German chief investigator, had four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals arrested, but they had to be released again after witnesses proved to be less than credible. However, the suspicion that Damascus could have been involved in the Hariri assassination has not been set aside to this day.

An 'Historic Moment'

In May 2009 SPIEGEL, citing sources close to the tribunal, published a detailed report on the possible motives for the assassination. The report identified Hezbollah commanders Mustafa Badr al-Din and Hajj Salim Ayash as the presumed suspects. At the time, Nasrallah threatened to sue the author of the story and the magazine. Now Al-Akhbar, a newspaper with ties to Nasrallah, is even calling the STL indictment "a SPIEGEL decision."

Nasrallah knows what is at stake for him. Saad Hariri called the arrest warrants an "historic moment" and a "turning point in the history of fighting organized political crime in Lebanon." The parliamentary group consisting of his Future Party and its allies is almost as strong as Hezbollah. And although Nasrallah can rely on most members of the government, not all are his allies. Referring to the four Hezbollah members indicted by the STL, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said: "We will find their addresses, raid (their houses) and arrest them."

Under international law, the Lebanese government has no choice but to extradite the men. UN Resolution 1757 requires it to cooperate fully with the tribunal and, in the event of noncompliance, includes the possibility of sanctions once the case has been turned over to the Security Council.

That point has not been reached yet. For now, Beirut has "30 business days after the delivery of the indictment" to submit a report on its efforts to serve the arrest warrants. If this does not lead to an arrest, as is expected, the STL will display wanted posters worldwide, particularly in Lebanon. This would be followed by a trial in absentia. After past missteps, the tribunal is taking pains to ensure that the process is handled fairly.

'Great Confidence' in Lebanese Prosecutors

Daniel Bellemare, the chief prosecutor in The Hague, counters Nasrallah's charges that the STL is a "corrupt and biased" institution with the assurance that the STL will seriously review information from Hezbollah's leader relating to possible Israeli involvement in the crime. Bellemare has also told SPIEGEL that he has "great confidence" in the Lebanese criminal prosecutors, and that he is even willing to travel to Beirut and meet with Nasrallah.

Additional STL indictments are not out of the question, possibly against Syrian intelligence or military officials who may have "inspired" the Hariri assassination. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad is not formally required to provide information to the UN tribunal. Besides, now that the uprising in his country has Assad with his back to the wall, the Hariri case is not exactly one of his most pressing problems.

The turmoil in neighboring Syria and the worldwide condemnation of Assad's brutality is bad news for Hezbollah. Damascus is traditionally a strong supporter of Hezbollah. No one knows whether a new regime in Syria would continue to allow weapons for Hezbollah to be brought across the Chouf Mountains.

That would leave the Shiite theocracy Iran as Hezbollah's partner and principal financial backer. Tehran is firmly committed to Hezbollah, which it sees as its most important bridgehead to the Arab world. It is possible that the two main suspects in the Hariri attack have already gone to Iran, which would be familiar territory for them. They were trained there and have been working closely for years with their Iranian contact, Qasim Sulaimani, a general in the Revolutionary Guard.

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