Lebanon tribunal charges under wraps as tensions rise

AFP, Tuesday 18 Jan 2011

STL presecutor Bellemare spoke, in a recorded message, responding to rising speculation on the indictment and fears of renewed sectarian conflict

Daniel Bellemare
STL Prosecutor General Daniel Bellemare. (AFP/Marcel Antonisse)

The tribunal set up to try the killers of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri insisted Tuesday on keeping its first indictment under wraps as fears of violence rose on the streets of Beirut.

The prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) warned that speculation on the indictment which he submitted on Monday and is widely believed to implicate Hezbollah, would be "counter-productive".

"This is the first step in our collective quest to end impunity in Lebanon," prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said in a recorded message as schools were closed in Beirut after dozens of young men appeared on the streets, prompting fears of violence.

"Several schools asked parents to come and collect their children after groups of 60 or 70 unarmed young men appeared early this morning in each of several neighbourhoods of west Beirut where Hezbollah and Amal have a presence," a security official told AFP, referring to the two main Shia parties in Lebanon.

In expectation of being named in the indictment, Hezbollah warned on Sunday it would "defend" itself and branded the tribunal, based in Leidschendam near The Hague for security reasons, a tool of the United States and Israel.

Hezbollah, which enjoys the backing of Iran and Syria, withdrew from the Lebanese cabinet with its allies last Wednesday, prompting the collapse of the unity government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, son of the murdered former premier.

Bellemare insisted on Tuesday that he could not reveal the charges or the names of those listed in the indictment in connection with the massive car bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on the Beirut seafront six years ago.

"Confidentiality is essential as I cannot presume that the pre-trial judge will confirm the indictment. If it is confirmed, the content of the document will be made public in due course," he said.

US President Barack Obama has welcomed the indictment as key to bringing justice to the culprits, but appealed for calm amid rising tensions.

"This action represents an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon, and achieving justice for the Lebanese people," Obama said in a statement, calling the United States a "strong friend" of Lebanon.

Lebanon's president on Monday postponed parliamentary talks on naming a new prime minister, as the leaders of Turkey, Qatar and Syria threw their weight behind a Syrian-Saudi bid to defuse the crisis.

Bellemare said the indictment launched the judicial phase of the work of the tribunal created at Lebanon's request by a 2007 UN Security Council resolution to find and try Hariri's killers.

"For the first time, a legal case has been launched by an international tribunal against those responsible for a political assassination in Lebanon," he said, thanking his team for hard work under "challenging circumstances" that included "many attacks against the tribunal".

He stressed that justice could not be rushed, and that any evidence presented to the court had to be "credible and compelling".

"I have made it clear from the start that I would act independently and that I would be driven by the evidence alone," the prosecutor insisted.

According to its rules of procedure, the indictment will next be reviewed by pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who must confirm the charges before any arrest warrant or summons to appear can be issued.

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