Hezbollah faces its trial with errors


For a party that repeats how unconcerned it is with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Hezbollah spends much time showing how concerned it is with the tribunal. The latest installment was a press conference Tuesday by Muhammad Raad, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc, in which he stated that the United States and Israel had drafted the institution’s recently released indictment.

Hezbollah’s concern is understandable. The indictment appeared to confirm many of the technical details (with some differences) of what emerged in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary last year. Using the methodology of “co-location,” investigators examined concentric rings of cellular telephone usage, and in that way identified the four Hezbollah suspects. However, one thing the indictment did not mention, but that the CBC program did, is that the Lebanese police officer Wissam Eid, in analyzing telecommunications before, during, and after the Hariri assassination, found that “[e]verything connected, however elliptically, to land lines inside Hezbollah’s Great Prophet Hospital in South Beirut, a sector of the city entirely controlled by the Party of God.”

It is unclear if the special tribunal intends to pursue that line of investigation, or even if it has material to substantiate the CBC’s assertion. However, Hezbollah is well aware that the published indictment does not tell the whole story, therefore that it is best not to let its guard down. Hence Raad’s press conference, only a few days after the party arranged an interview between one of the suspects and an unidentified correspondent of Time magazine.

Hezbollah subsequently denied that any such meeting had taken place, alleging that it was all part of the plot directed against the party. However, there have been persistent reports in Beirut that the denial came at the urgent request of Najib Mikati. It didn’t take much for the prime minister to realize that he and his government’s credibility would disintegrate after the suspect claimed that the “Lebanese authorities know where I live, and if they wanted to arrest me they would have done it a long time ago. Simply, they cannot.”

Taking willful blindness to new heights, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, whose every remark provokes dubiousness and consternation, avowed that the Time interview was “dangerous and targets Hezbollah.” Charbel, like Mikati, knows that the Time interview happened, was Hezbollah’s doing, and served to reiterate how the party controls state policy when it comes to the tribunal.

Hezbollah’s discomfort aside, as Lebanese we are entitled to begin asking whether there will be further indictments. There have been numerous unconfirmed leaks to that effect, and even members of prosecutor Daniel Bellemare’s team have said in private settings that the indictment process would come in stages. It may be useless to speculate, but we can appreciate why Hezbollah is so nervous. The party may conceivably find itself holding the gun alone in what was, plainly, a much vaster conspiracy that also involved Syrians and other Lebanese – to borrow from the reports of United Nations investigators Peter Fitzgerald, Detlev Mehlis, and Serge Brammertz.

The Time interview only reaffirmed how rigidly Hezbollah has addressed the special tribunal, highlighting implicit contradictions in its defense strategy. The suspect in question said things that may potentially jar with the party’s line on the institution. Of course, he echoed Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s view that the tribunal had issued false accusations so as to discredit Hezbollah, when the real culprits were in Israel. However, a sincere declaration of innocence, as the suspect engaged in and which Hezbollah orchestrated, would appear to have been unnecessary had the tribunal been an Israeli project. Does a victim of political intrigue really need to prove his bona fides?

And second, the suspect revealed that he had an alibi proving that he was not at the crime scene. He recalled, “I was even surprised when I heard the news that Hariri was assassinated, and I stopped with a friend of mine in one of the coffee shops to watch it on TV.” The most ardent Hezbollah partisan could legitimately ask why the party doesn’t allow the suspect and his comrade to speak to the special tribunal by satellite link-up. If they can establish that the suspect was far from the hotel district, that would seriously undermine Bellemare’s case.

Hezbollah will not authorize any such statements, because that would mean recognizing the tribunal’s authority. And yet such a fear did not prevent the party from permitting the Lebanese authorities to pass on to Bellemare its evidence pointing to purported Israeli responsibility for the Hariri killing. And why must Hezbollah engage in speech after speech and press conference after press conference, and lately organize an encounter between a suspect and a journalist, if it is so apparent that the party has been framed? Not only is this a case of protesting too much, we now have a suspect saying that he has ways of confirming that he, therefore Hezbollah, is blameless. This is never a good argument when you want to convince the public that you gain by steering clear of a judicial process. If Hezbollah can legally destroy a fraudulent indictment, then surely the party gains by taking the tribunal up on its challenge and providing information to that end.

Hezbollah may have boxed itself into a corner on the special tribunal. What worries the party is that not everything was disclosed in the indictment. As more data is gradually uncovered by the prosecution, the party will have to respond publicly with a shifting defense that must remain convincing. If telephone conversations lead to the Great Prophet Hospital, even Muhammad Raad may be speechless.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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