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Rafiq Hariri murder trial: Proceedings begin - but the dock is empty

Nine years ago, Lebanon’s Prime Minister was murdered. But his alleged killers won’t be at the tribunal in The Hague as they haven’t been arrested. Robert Fisk says history shows the guilty will never face justice
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At last! Justice! International justice, no less. The truth - al-haqiqa, in Arabic - which is just what Rafiq Hariri's family and supporters have demanded ever since he was assassinated in Beirut on Valentine's Day 2005. On Thursday, an old Dutch intelligence headquarters near The Hague - how very suitable - will be the historic venue for the trial of the former Lebanese Prime Minister's alleged murderers. Except that they have not been made amenable to the law. The suspects will not be in The Hague. And history makes it perfectly obvious that we shall never - ever - see the guilty punished.

For not once has anyone been imprisoned for political murder in Lebanon since the foundation of the state well over 60 years ago. Not after a fair trial, at any rate.

President-elect Bashir Gemayel, Christian leader Dany Chamoun, President Rene Moawad, MP Pierre Gemayel Jnr, Samir Kassir, George Hawi - at least three of them murdered after Hariri's liquidation - have been killed without a single soul paying the price. Of course, international diplomacy - an institution very different from international justice - told us that we would have a solution to all this Lebanese bloodshed. When the UN-supported Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established, everyone was informed that this was the beginning of the end of Lebanon's rule without law. Vain hope! Why, even this week, in a neighbouring country which shall remain nameless, a former Prime Minister with much blood on his hands from Lebanon was given a state funeral.

Hardly, of course, what Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi or Assad Sabra might seek - they are, after all, the The Hague tribunal’s wanted men - although Mr Badreddine's brother-in-law, a certain Imad Mugnieh, blown to bits in Damascus after a bloody career as a Hezbollah commander, received a funeral fit for a warlord. But no, they are not even going to be arraigned because the Hezbollah will not allow them to be sent to trial - if, indeed, they are guilty.

Hezbollah claims the latest evidence against its rogues is part of an Israeli plot to finger the Shia "resistance" by the manipulation of mobile phone records. The Israelis have indeed been up to some hanky-panky with Lebanon's communications - hence the arrest of several Lebanese officials for spying for Israel - and Hezbollah had (pre-Hariri) been loath to sully its hands in domestic Lebanese murders. The organisation's overt military assistance to the Syrian government, however - not to mention the large number of Sunni rebels they have killed in Syria - has rather messed up this reputation.

The historical record is interesting. Just after Hariri's 2005 murder, Syria was said to be guilty. Then Palestinians loyal to the Syrian Baathist regime were blamed (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, to be exact). And then, no sooner had a German news magazine fingered them than the Lebanese Hezbollah became the culprits.

The tribunal, which had already fallen off its perch by taking evidence from witnesses who later recanted - and permitting the prolonged imprisonment of pro-Syrian Lebanese officers without charge - apparently thought that the Lebanese authorities could arrest the four wanted men. A company of Lebanese soldiers would perhaps call at their homes, politely requesting their presence at the court in the Netherlands.

From where do such illusions come? If the Lebanese army was to cross Hezbollah, it would break apart - no Lebanese Shia soldier, after all, is going to do battle with his own Shia people, not least because the Syrian civil war has scraped bare the tensions in Lebanon between the Shia and the Sunni. And Hariri, let us remember, was a Sunni. And a Saudi citizen. And the Saudi princes - along with their fellow Sunni Arab Gulf rulers - are Sunnis. And Sunnis are the largest community serving in the Lebanese army. And car bombs in Lebanon are back in murderous fashion, cutting down crowds far in excess of the 21 men and women who died with Hariri almost nine years ago.

Samir Geagea, the wartime Lebanese Christian militia leader, was indeed put on trial for the murder of Prime Minister Rashid Karami and spent 11 years in prison in Beirut, languishing in the basement of the defence ministry after - say his friends - quite a lot of torture. But his real crime was almost certainly his refusal to bend to Syria's rod and to the continued muscular interference in Lebanon of Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar). And he wants the murderers of Hariri to be made accountable. So he doesn't count. Nor do any of the gang-land Mafiosi whose hands dripped gore during the 15-year Lebanese civil war and whose cultivated, moderating, jovial presence we all still enjoy in Lebanon today. Which is why we still shake hands with them.

So the Hague defendants are, not unnaturally, in absentia - much like the politics of Lebanon which has neither a functioning government or parliament, mainly because of Shia-Sunni disputes. Saad Hariri, the son of the late Rafiq and supposedly a pretender to his throne, hides in Saudi Arabia which – given the fate of Saad's friend Mohamed Chattah last month, blown up by another Beirut car bomb - may be the wise thing to do. He will, we are told, attend the first hearings of the special tribunal. A  long way from Lebanon. And from the murderers. Whoever they may be.

Cedar struggles: What is Lebanon's special tribunal?

* The UN Security Council ordered the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) following the assassination of the country's former President Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. He was killed in a huge explosion as his motorcade drove past. The blast killed 21 other people and injured 231.

* The tribunal has continued to fuel political tensions in the country after it was revealed that Hezbollah members would be indicted. This led to the collapse of the government in 2011.

* Four Hezbollah members will stand trial in absentia: Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra. A fifth suspect, Hassan Merhi, whose whereabouts remain unknown, will also be tried in absentia. In a hearing on Tuesday the court failed to decide if his case would be joined to that of the other four.

* Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah has refused to  recognise the court’s legitimacy, declaring the court a US-Zionist conspiracy aimed at undermining the resistance. The party would never hand over any of the suspects, he has said.

* Political deadlock has marked Lebanon ever since Hariri's assassination and the subsequent "Cedar Revolution" - a series of protests sparked by the assassination which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. The country has been divided between opposing political groups, the Hezbollah-led 8 March coalition and the US and Saudi-backed 14 March camp.

Laura Wilkinson