The Hague, Netherlands
Almost nine years after the February 14, 2005 murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a car bomb explosion in central Beirut that killed 22 others and wounded more than 200, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has come to fruition. Thursday morning the STL opened its trial against four suspects named in the case, all of them Hezbollah members, including alleged ringleader Mustafa Badreddine, cousin and brother-in-law of the notorious Imad Mughniyeh, the infamous Hezbollah commander assassinated in 2008 who is believed to be responsible for dozens of terrorist acts, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon.
“The question, ‘Who killed Rafik Hariri?’ now has an answer,” Saad Hariri told me Wednesday night in an exclusive interview in his hotel room in The Hague on the eve of the trial. The slain prime minister’s son also served as the Lebanese premier from 2009 until 2011, when Hezbollah and its allies collapsed his government and sent the younger Hariri into exile between Paris and Riyadh. Still the leader of the Sunni community’s largest political bloc, the Future movement, and one of the pillars of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 gathering, Hariri’s absence from Lebanon is due only to an extremely dangerous security situation in which his life would certainly be imperiled. Just last month, Mohamed Chatah, a longtime Hariri ally who’d served as finance minister under Rafik and as an advisor to Saad, was killed in yet another car bombing in Beirut, a short distance from where the elder Hariri was murdered.
When I saw Saad Hariri on Wednesday, he and his aides were still visibly shaken—they’d lost a friend and a colleague and Hezbollah’s campaign of murdering its domestic opponents was still on its bloody march nearly a decade on. However, Hariri, who has often struck observers as a reluctant politician without the charismatic leadership skills of his father, came across as resilient and determined. He spoke clearly and passionately about the message that the trial, and his presence at its opening, is meant to send.
“The message is that political assassinations are no longer accepted in the Middle East,” said Hariri. “This is an extremely important message, for Lebanon and the entire region. This trial marks the first time that an act of terror is tried in an international tribunal. There have been trials for war crimes and genocide, but this sets a precedent.” According to Hariri, “The STL trial should be seen as an instrument in the war on terror.”
Hariri explained that impunity for political murder has long been the norm in the Middle East—no one is ever brought to account for political crimes. “But when my father was assassinated, there was an anger in Lebanon that led to a kind of revolt, and this revolt brought a kind of freedom to Lebanon. So the main point of the STL is to have justice. Many people fear that the trial and its results might bring more instability to Lebanon but the truth is always ugly to the perpetrators of such crimes. But it is beautiful for its victims and those who seek justice.”
Hariri acknowledged that the trial is only the first step in a long and difficult process that he nonetheless sees culminating in a transformation around the Middle East. “We believe impunity for political murder should and will stop. But yes, the assassins still believe they can keep killing, as they did with Mohamed Chatah. They still believe they can do what they want. But we still believe in justice, and March 14 still believes that good will always prevail over evil.”
But if Hariri sees the Middle East bending toward the arc of justice, there’s another regional trend that pays little heed to trials and tribunals, justice and moderation. The men who murdered his father and countless other Lebanese officials, activists, journalists, and innocent bystanders are a part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regional project, now spreading from Baghdad to Beirut, where Tehran has seeded and supported allies, from Bashar al-Assad to Nuri al-Maliki, to wage a baldly sectarian war pitting a Shiite-led axis against the Middle East’s Sunni majority.