Friday, December 24, 2010

Daniel Bellemare’s Christmas message

We didn’t get draft indictments as a Christmas gift from Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), but we did get a video. In a document posted on the tribunal’s website, Bellemare once again insisted that his work was not politicized, and that his only guide was the evidence available to him.

However, plainly there are others in Beirut and elsewhere in the Middle East who now view the tribunal as a political bargaining chip. Day in and day out, the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is pushed to deny or play down some media report or other claiming that he has given up on the institution, or is about to do so. Here is a sure sign that the haggling is continuing between the Syrians and the Saudis to finalize a formula that would end the Lebanese impasse over the tribunal.

These developments beg the question: Is there a political understanding that can be reached between the Lebanese, the Syrians and the Saudis that might undermine the special tribunal?

The question was at the heart of several notable pronouncements this week. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed all eventual decisions taken by the tribunal as “null and void.” The Syrian ambassador in Beirut, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, after saying that Syrian-Saudi contacts were continuing, added, “[but] the results should come from the parties in Lebanon through the responsiveness and consensus they reach between themselves, away from the media.”

An unidentified US official told Lebanese daily Al-Hayat in comments published on Thursday that Washington had received no news of a Syrian-Saudi deal, but added that if such a deal were reached at the tribunal’s expense, it would constitute “blackmail.” The official observed that the tribunal was “an international mechanism that could not be eliminated or subjected to political bargaining,” before pointedly describing it as “Lebanon’s best hope to garner international support to transcend its tragic and bloody history of political violence.”

The statements from the US official seemed an implicit warning to the Saudis, based on the fear that some arrangement was being negotiated. Nor would the statement this week by Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad have reassured Washington. Raad said his party would be willing to compromise in the “false witnesses” dispute, after he confirmed Syrian-Saudi efforts to resolve the political deadlock.

What does all this mean? If the Americans are subtly raising the heat against their allies in Beirut and Riyadh, that may imply they smell a rat. That Mohammad Raad has offered to be flexible might be a signal that progress is being made between Syria and Saudi Arabia, explaining why Hezbollah is willing to offer concessions of its own to find a consensus – the same consensus the Syrian ambassador has urged the Lebanese to achieve through compromise. Or this brouhaha could be maneuvering because Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has left hospital, and all sides expect Syrian-Saudi negotiations to resume in earnest.

The bottom line, however, is that Bellemare’s assurances that the tribunal is not politicized does not signify that politics cannot get the better of the court. Lebanon will try to avoid taking the drastic measures required to cripple the tribunal – withdrawing the Lebanese judges, cutting funding and cooperation, and denouncing the institution as politicized — since the international repercussions would be severe. But even lesser measures agreed between the Lebanese parties under foreign sponsorship, for example casting doubt on essential aspects of the tribunal’s work, could hinder the trial process.

For instance, once the trial begins, the willingness of new witnesses to come forward and the readiness of the Lebanese security forces to arrest suspects, uncover new leads, or simply assist tribunal investigators when interviewing witnesses, will be substantially shaped by the prevailing mood among the Lebanese authorities. If the government appears increasingly lukewarm to tribunal affairs, this would have a negative bearing on how the Lebanese respond to the possibilities opened up by the new dynamics the trial will release.

It’s no great secret what serious Syrian-Saudi negotiations represent to each side. The Saudis hope to strengthen Damascus’ power in Lebanon to better contain Iran and Hezbollah. The Syrians want that too, of course, and something substantial from Saad Hariri in the way of denting the tribunal’s integrity. Hezbollah has demanded the same, in exchange for unblocking the cabinet. Damascus and Riyadh may fail to come to an accord, one that Iran must first approve anyway for it to work, but there is little doubt what the bottom line is for each side.

Daniel Bellemare should be conscious of what is taking place around him. No one can blame the prosecutor for avoiding political skirmishing; his focus is on the legal dimensions of his case. But given a happening as fundamentally political as the Hariri assassination, the prosecutor cannot be blind to politics. To strengthen his hand, he will have to help ensure that Beirut remains squarely on the tribunal’s side.

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