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Tribunal funding, arrests test Lebanon government

After winning a confidence vote at home, Lebanon's Hezbollah-dominated government is headed for another test over the country's financial duties towards the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)

AFP , Saturday 16 Jul 2011
Lebanon
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For experts there is little the government will -- or can -- do in assisting the UN-backed STL, which has ordered the arrest of four Hezbollah operatives indicted in the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri. "Everybody knows that there is little the Lebanese government can do to truly assist the tribunal," said Beirut-based commentator Hilal Khashan.

"Prime Minister Najib Mikati can get away with not raising the issue of funding as the (pro-Western) opposition is not represented in cabinet." Mikati -- a Forbes-listed billionaire with business interests across the globe -- has vowed to cooperate with the court, but Shiite militant group Hezbollah has outright refused to comply with the STL which it says is a US-Israeli conspiracy against the Iran-backed movement.

Analysts say Mikati is now left with no choice but to continue his balancing act between the opposition's demand for "justice" and Hezbollah's warnings that "stability" must be protected in the volatile country.

"Prime Minister Najib Mikati has the capacity to stall decisions on funding by not raising the matter for discussion at a cabinet meeting," said Beirut-based political commentator Jean Aziz.

"On the other hand, if funding is in fact brought up as part of the government's overall budget talks, then Hezbollah and its allies can stall the talks either in government or parliament."

Lebanon is responsible for meeting 49 percent of the costs for the Netherlands-based STL, the first international court with jurisdiction to try an act of terrorism.

The court has long been at the centre of an intractable crisis in Lebanon, culminating in the collapse of Lebanon's previous government led by Hariri's son, US- and Saudi-backed Saad Hariri.

Saad Hariri's government had failed to pass a state budget as he locked horns with Hezbollah over the STL.

In 2010, Hariri's camp made a contribution to the court without going through the government and, according to a source in the former government, the country did not meet its required contribution to the STL for the year 2011.

Today, the Hezbollah-led majority alliance effectively controls Lebanon's new government, which last week issued a programme including a clause that stipulates Lebanon would "respect" international resolutions on condition they do not threaten peace and stability.

"The current government has purposely taken a stance on the tribunal that is ambiguous and vague as it needs flexibility in dealing with an issue as explosive as this," said Imad Salamey, political science professor at the Lebanese-American University.

"Mikati stands up and supports the tribunal. Part of his cabinet can oppose, and part of his cabinet can support him," Salamey told AFP. "This way, he is not directly holding himself accountable to the opposition."

In an interview with local television on Tuesday, Hariri said he had been left wondering "who to believe" as Mikati and Hezbollah adopted seemingly opposite stances against the court.

"It comes down to funding -- that is when we will know what the government's position is," he said.

Lebanon's government should finalise its public budget by the autumn, which should in theory include funds for the STL. The tribunal's defence office will begin to build its case at around the same time, although arrests are unlikely as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said he doubts the four will ever be found.

"Everyone is aware of the existing balance of power in Lebanon," said Khashan. "It's not that Mikati will not cooperate with the STL -- he will. "Judicial authorities and the police are investigating the whereabouts of the indictees, and when the 30 days they have to find them are over, the government will inform the tribunal that they were nowhere to be found," he added.

"Technically, that is all that is required of the government."

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