Lebanon paralysed as country awaits indictments

AFP, Sunday 19 Dec 2010

As the Tribunal investigating Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination prepares to issue its indictments and Hezbollah makes threats, Lebanon stands still in anxious anticipation

Thousands march in Beirut in 2005 demanding the truth about Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination. (Reuters)

The Lebanese government is in paralysis, business deals are on hold and rumours abound as the country awaits the UN tribunal investigating former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri's murder to issue its indictments.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) announced on the ninth of December that the confidential contents of the indictments for the 2005 killing of Hariri and 22 others in the Beirut blast would be filed for confirmation "very, very soon."

Hariri was murdered on the 14th of February 2005 by explosives detonated near his motorcade as it passed through Beirut.

The STL is reportedly set to indict high-ranking operatives of Shiite group Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful military force. Hezbollah has, in response to the reports, accused the court of serving Israel and basing its findings on false testimony.

Hezbollah has said it expects to be falsely accused of involvement in the assassination. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened to “cut off the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest his members, raising fears of instability in the small, multi-religious country.

Nasrallah, has urged Lebanon's deeply divided unity government to step aside and allow him to deal directly with the STL which he brands a US-Israeli plot.

This has lead to a "total paralysis of state institutions, including the government, which is incapable of taking any decision," Sami Salhab, a law professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP.

The anticipated indictments have split the unity government, with Hezbollah and its supporters pitted against a camp led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated Sunni leader.

The stand-off has frozen the work of the cabinet, on which Hezbollah sits, to the extent that it has only met once in more than a month to deal with an agenda running to 300 items.

"The government cannot appoint a single official. It's not allowed, as the country has shut down," said Salhab.

The central bank governor's term expires next year, and no successor has been named. Likewise, the head of general security retired two weeks ago, without a new candidate being lined up.

A decision on renting a ship-based power generator to ease Lebanon's chronic electricity shortages is also pending, and Sukleen, a Hariri-started company which manages garbage collection, is yet to have its contract renewed.

The government must decide on "the ship rental for power generation as a temporary solution to the problem of shortages, and renew urgent contracts, such as for Sukleen," said Mona Ofeish, a state minister.

According to President Michel Sleiman, "the state still has not compensated the victims of the storms that hit Lebanon" in which houses were swept away by floods and fishermen lost their boats and livelihood. Sleiman is considered to be politically neutral between the two camps.

Developers say that building projects, which had turned Lebanon into one big construction site since the end of a 1975-1990 civil war, have slowed down.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor's has warned that a slowdown in promised structural reforms could impact the high economic growth of post-war years.

It is not just government and businesses that feel the strain. In the streets, too, there is a palpable sense of discontent.

"My clients have cancelled their orders for next summer because they could not sell their winter merchandise," said Nawal Sarkis, a wholesaler of women's accessories. "They should issue this indictment and be done with it. People are fed up," she added.

"Everything is frozen because the purchasing power is going down. I have no hope in my country," despaired restaurant owner Jean Khashan.

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