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A Costly Academic Exercise or Justice in Motion?

The UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Tuesday delivered its verdict on the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in a massive car bombing on 14 February 2005.

More than 15 years later, the STL handed down its verdict in the trial of four individuals accused of Hariri’s assassination, clearing the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and the Syrian government of any involvement. 

The case went to trial in the Hague, with none of the accused in custody in what was the first trial in absentia before an international court since Nuremberg. On trial were four members of the Iran-backed political party and militia - Salim Ayyash, accused of overseeing preparations for the attack, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra, and Hassan Merhi - none of whom was ever located. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah refused to hand over the quartet.


The trial, which has been running since 2009, cost at least 970 million dollars to prosecute, with 12 full time judges, - by comparison the International Criminal Court is investigating over a dozen conflict situations with 18 judges - 399 staff members as of December and an army of investigators and lawyers. All of this for a single case which took 11 years to hand down its verdict. 


The tribunal in the Netherlands acquitted three of the four defendants due to lack of evidence, convicting Ayyash of conspiring to carry out the attack. However should he ever be apprehended, Ayyash would be entitled to a complete retrial as he was tried in absentia. The long-awaited verdict has proved disappointing to many Lebanese - and others - who had high hopes for ending the cycle of impunity in the country for political killings. 


While the court did say that “Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and his political allies”, it concluded that it lacked the evidence needed to implicate them in the crime. “It’s like in 9/11 if you name the hijackers and not bin Laden,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of Paris-based research centre the Arab Reform Initiative. “This was way above Ayyash’s pay grade.” 


The United Nations Secretary General sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut, which arrived 11 days after the incident. The mission found that the crime scene had not been preserved according to standards and that important evidence had been removed and destroyed without record.

Hariri’s assassination was part of a difficult era in Lebanese politics, with rivalry between Syria and Iran-backed figures and Hariri’s Western-and Gulf-alligned political bloc. Many hoped that the STL would provide accountability for the common use of assassinations as a tool for resolving political conflicts, but the long-winded investigation, hundreds of millions of dollars spent and lack of arrests and lack of ultimate accountability for either the Syrian government or Hezbollah have proven a grave disappointment. 


Victims continue their long wait for the truth behind the 2005 bombing, and this does not bode well for those demanding accountability for Lebanon’s latest tragedy. The STL has not been a success for international justice, and leaves behind a Lebanon more broken than when the tribunal began. As the legal maxim goes, "justice delayed is justice denied".

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