Closer to Closure, but Closer to Crisis? Lebanon’s Special Tribunal Names Names

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Beirut, Lebanon: Flowers and photos are laid by Rafik Hariri's tomb in downtown Beirut on August 6, 2008. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

Who killed Rafik Hariri? Today Lebanon got one step closer to answering a question that has plagued this war-wracked nation ever since the 2005 Valentine’s Day truck bombing that killed the country’s prime minister in downtown Beirut. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN-backed body investigating the assassination, delivered four arrest warrants to Lebanese authorities, who have 30 days to indict the suspects.

The names were not meant to be made public, but as with all secrets in Lebanon with a potentially political use, they were leaked within hours of the announcement. As expected, at least two of those indicted, Mustafa Badreddine and Salim Ayyash, are high-ranking members of the Iranian and Syrian-backed militant group Hizballah. Badreddine, an early founder of Hizballah and an expert in sabotage and bomb making, according to his profile in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, was arrested in Kuwait in 1990, broke out of prison, took refuge in the Iranian embassy there, and was eventually escorted back to Lebanon by Iran’s revolutionary guard. Ayyash is accused of leading the assassination cell, and is a U.S. passport holder. Syrians have also been named as suspects; representatives of the tribunal will travel to Damascus in the coming days to deliver those names.

Reaction was largely muted in Beirut, though there were some reports of an increased security presence in anticipation of a potential backlash. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who succeeded his father as head of the Sunni dominated and western-leaning Future Party, said that the issuing of the indictments was a “a distinctive historic moment in the political, judicial, security and moral life of Lebanon… We chose not to revenge or resent. We relied on God and started a costly and long path towards justice and truth through a tribunal of international character with Lebanese judges that would provide evidence and give the accused, whoever they are, a chance to defend themselves.”

Whether or not the accused choose to do so remains to be seen. It’s unlikely that they will give themselves up, and even more unlikely that Lebanese authorities would dare cross Hizballah in order to serve those arrests. “We welcome the international community to come and try and disarm Hizballah,” quipped one member to TIME. “If they can, we will hand them over.”

If Lebanese authorities are not able to produce the defendants within the next 30 days, they can be tried in absentia, with no right of appeal. It’s hardly a threat – Hizballah, which has a leading stake in Parliament, is likely to try to undermine the tribunal on widely publicized concerns of foreign meddling, lack of transparency and leaks such as those earlier today. Hizballah leaders say that the leaks prove that the STL is politically biased against them. Current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who heads the Hizballah dominated-dominated majority in Parliament, has been vague on whether his government will cooperate with the tribunal, stating in a press conference that “Lebanon’s interests should be above all things… The indictments are not verdicts.” A government press release issued at the conference hedged even further: “The government confirms that it will follow the progress of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was set up in principle to see justice served in a manner that is neither politicized nor vengeful, and as long as it does not negatively affect Lebanon’s stability and civil peace.”

Last winter Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the group would “cut off the hand” of anyone who attempted to arrest any of its members. It’s a potent threat, considering that the militant group has an arsenal far bigger than the Lebanese security forces. Any confrontation between Lebanese authorities and Hizballah would have a negative effect on Lebanon’s stability indeed. —with reporting by Rami Aysha