Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Beirut: Crime and Punishment in the Levant

Lebanon’s False Choice Between Stability and Justice

Over the years, Lebanon has managed to avoid getting to the bottom of its politically motivated crimes. Its 15-year civil war ended with an amnesty law, even though more than 100,000 people had been killed, including dozens of prominent political and religious figures, among them two presidents. Not surprisingly, with UN indictments for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri now approaching, the country is finding it difficult to deal with the possibility that, in this one case, the pursuit of justice might reach a firmer conclusion.

In the coming weeks, the United Nations' Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to confirm indictments against individuals who participated in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others on February 14, 2005. Those indicted are expected to include Hezbollah members. The attack provoked mass demonstrations in Beirut directed against Syria, viewed as the likely culprit. By April of that year, Syrian forces had withdrawn from Lebanon; an anti-Syrian coalition won a parliamentary majority soon thereafter.

For Hezbollah, any outcome suggesting its involvement in Hariri's death could prove disastrous, as the mere accusation that its Shiite members facilitated the elimination of a Sunni leader might destroy the party's reputation and effectiveness in Lebanon and the Middle East. Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has tried to paint the tribunal as an "Israeli project," claiming that Israel killed Hariri and that, backed by the United States, Israel intends to use the institution to undermine Hezbollah's "resistance."

Facing what it sees as an existential threat posed by the indictments, Hezbollah had sought to force the now former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, and his allies to sever Lebanon's official ties with the UN tribunal. Hezbollah hoped that Hariri's sponsor, Saudi Arabia, would compel the prime minister to take such a step as part of a months-long dialogue that Riyadh carried out with Syria, which, along with Hezbollah, has also sought to turn Beirut against the tribunal. The Saudis viewed such an agreement as

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