‘Justice delayed’: Hariri trial verdict to increase tension

Years after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, a large billboard was put up at a main Beirut intersection. It bore Hariri’s smiling image, contrasted against a black background, and the words “time for justice” in large, white letters. 

A ticker above the billboard’s top right corner counted up the days to justice. By last year, it stopped working. Then, at some point during the winter that no one in the area seems to remember, the billboard itself disappeared. 

On Tuesday, the verdict in the trial of four individuals accused of Hariri’s assassination will finally be handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) – an international court based near the Hague, in the Netherlands – more than 15 years after he was killed in a massive car bombing on February 14, 2005, along with 21 others.

Four members of Iran-backed militia and political party Hezbollah stand accused of organising and carrying out the attack, though Hezbollah itself is not formally accused. 

At the time, large swaths of Lebanon’s population laid final blame for the assassination on Syria, and enormous protests set off a chain of events that led Syrian forces to withdraw from Lebanon after some 40 years in the country. 

Since its inception in 2007, the STL has been demonised by the pro-Syria camp in Lebanon, chiefly Hezbollah, who have said it is a conspiracy against them. Others see it as the only way to achieve justice in a country with a weak, politically exposed judiciary. 

But Lebanon has a different set of problems today than it did 15 years ago. The verdict will be announced to a people free-falling into an endless downward spiral of economic collapse, political crisis, coronavirus outbreak, and an explosion that killed more than 170 people and injured 6,000, dwarfing the attack that killed the former prime minister. 

There are some parallels: Many, including local and international organizations and the families of some victims, have called for an international investigation into the blast, citing their lack of trust in Lebanese authorities. 

The pro-Syria camp, represented by President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, have rejected these calls, saying they have no confidence in international justice.

In the run-up to the verdict, Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his brother Baha, two of Rafik’s sons, have urged supporters to exercise restraint. Still, it will undoubtedly add to simmering tensions and rage against the strongest political forces in the country – Hezbollah and its allies. 

“The verdict will add fuel to rising anti-Hezbollah sentiment in Lebanon,” Hilal Khashan, a veteran professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera. “No one believes for a second that four unruly members of this highly disciplined group carried out this attack on their own accord.”

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