The UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) heard opening statements in the murder trial for former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Thursday in the Hague, Netherlands. Four Hezbollah members suspected of assassinating the Prime Minister will be tried over the next several weeks without being present in the courtroom. Hezbollah refuses to hand over the defendants, claiming the trial is merely an Israeli led conspiracy.
The murder of Hariri in 2005 led to mass protests and the expulsion of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon as well as flare ups of sectarian violence. It also brought about the establishment of a UN backed tribunal in 2009 that investigated the case and indicted the four suspects in 2011.
Lebanese soldiers march in front a poster depicting Rafik Hariri. (Photo: AP)
International criminal tribunals are often fraught with political tension, but this trial in particular has highlighted divisions within Lebanon. On one side, the family and supporters of Hariri, mostly Lebanese Sunnis with some support from Saudi Arabia, believe that the case will help resolve the long standing pattern of political assassins escaping justice. Prosecutors point to evidence from the mobile phone records of the suspects that they claim assures their guilt.
Hezbollah and its Shia supporters argue that Israel is responsible for the attack and manipulated the phone records, and that the trial has become too politicized to reach a fair verdict. However, the suspects will be tried as individuals and not as members of Hezbollah. Beirut also decided to provide half of the funding for the tribunal, leading to a still unresolved political impasse between the two major governing parties in April 2013.
Lebanese citizens remain polarized over the trial, but the ongoing sectarian war in Syria has largely overshadowed recent developments in the case. Hezbollah remains the leading party in the government and maintains a sizable military organization, even after devoting fighters to help defend Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from Sunni rebels. There has been Sunni-Shiite fighting in Lebanon as an adjunct to the Syrian war, and there is fear that a verdict in the Hariri case will exacerbate sectarian tensions.