Friday, August 2, 2013

Trial and error for March 14

The decline of March 14 has been like a death in an Egyptian movie. The agony never ends, the statements of recrimination and regret come in successive stanzas, and as the character finally expires, the orchestra builds up to a shriek of violins.

For March 14, the sharpest blow was internal discord over the Orthodox proposal, which showed how unsettled were the Christian parties that elections would perpetuate their secondary status in the coalition, and in their own community. Stanzas of recrimination and regret accompanied March 14’s repeated political setbacks, its frustrations in government and, above all, the reckless effort by Hezbollah to bring down Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011.

But the agony that is never ending comes from the continued delays in the trial of suspects in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. What was once the most effective weapon in March 14’s scabbard has become mostly irrelevant to realities in Lebanon.

That’s not to say that the tribunal is, or was ever intended to be, a weapon for the one-time majority. But it symbolized what the 2005 uprising against Syria and its Lebanese allies was about: a rejection of murder as a staple of Lebanese politics. When the United Nations authorized an investigation of the Hariri assassination, followed by the formation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, many Lebanese, perhaps naively, believed this would signal an end to impunity for political crimes in the country. How wrong they were.

As March 14 began regressing as an effective political force, as it lost its parliamentary majority, and as it fractured over an election law, the special tribunal still had not began a trial. One president died and another came in, the prosecutor was replaced, the Lebanese authorities were unable to arrest suspects, and delay followed delay, so that today it is unlikely the trial will begin until next year. Now the reason given is that the defense has requested many documents from the prosecution, and needs time to digest the mass of information.

That is understandable, but less so is how March 14 built its political strategy entirely around the Hariri investigation, and persisted with this even after there was ample evidence that it was stalling. Nor were they shaken that the reports of the second and third UN commissioners, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, were paragons of uninformative blandness.

Even a man whom March 14 trusted to get to the bottom of the Hariri assassination, Detlev Mehlis, Brammertz’s predecessor as UN commissioner, was souring on what had happened in the investigation after his departure. In January 2008 I interviewed him for The Wall Street Journal, and he was unambiguously skeptical.

Speaking of Brammertz, he said, “I haven’t seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward.” In response to Brammertz’s conclusions that Hariri had been killed for political reasons and that there were several layers of participation in the conspiracy to assassinate him, Mehlis asked, “We needed two years of investigative endeavor to discover this?”

I soon concluded that senior Lebanese judicial and political figures shared Mehlis’ concerns. One admitted that Brammertz had not greatly progressed in his work, while another blamed him for repeatedly confirming the arrest of four generals suspected in the crime before shifting the burden onto the Lebanese. Yet March 14 politicians remained officially optimistic about the UN investigation, and, more difficult to grasp, they believed their own rhetoric.

When Daniel Bellemare issued an indictment in 2011 accusing Hezbollah members of being involved in Hariri’s murder, March 14 felt it had received a new lease on life. The coalition didn’t pause to consider that Syria had not been accused, even though it was highly unlikely that Syrian officials were not involved in the crime since the removal of so prominent a political figure as Hariri certainly required a Syrian green light.

Such a grave shortcoming could only indicate that investigators had missed a great deal, and yet still March 14 retained high hopes for the legal process. When Saad Hariri was ousted, they demanded that Najib Miqati, the prime minister-designate, put in writing his position on the STL, otherwise they would not support him. Miqati could not accept such a condition, but in the end he successfully pushed for government funding of the tribunal, to preserve his Sunni bona fides.

Today, the STL is in good hands, but that doesn’t change the fact that its impact could well be restricted. We may get an insight into how Hariri was killed, and with whom the perpetrators spoke. But nothing the trial tells us about Hezbollah will be new, and the ability of March 14 and others to use the revelations to end impunity will be limited.

The coalition put all its eggs in the basket of an investigative process riddled with flaws, and a judicial process that is glacially slow. Had this been understood much earlier, March 14 may have planned its strategy differently, instead of waiting for a silver bullet that would allow it to impose its agenda domestically. Instead, today it cannot seem to revive itself, the violins rising in the background.

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