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The Daily Star - August 11, 2010


by Rami G. Khouri


Solving a murder is always a riveting experience for any audience, as is following the intricacies of Lebanese politics with its many regional and international links. When you combine the two, as Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, did on Monday night in his televised news conference, the result is gripping political theater.

But was his performance any more than that? The answer to that question depends largely on whether we see Nasrallah as playing the role of prosecutor or defense attorney in a murder trial. In fact, he was trying to do both, which is a pretty hard act to pull off.

Nasrallah provided a variety of fascinating pieces of information and images on alleged and confirmed Israeli spies in Lebanon, intercepted Israeli unmanned drone surveillance films of assorted sites in Lebanon, Israeli official and media statements accusing Hizbullah of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in early 2005, and other bits and pieces that he wove into a tapestry that aimed to make Israel the likely culprit in the killing.

Nasrallah was playing a difficult part in this drama that actually reflected his different roles, equivalent to an accused party, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer in a real murder trial case. He was trying to achieve four related aims: deflect attention from the widely expected accusation that Hizbullah or some of its members will be indicted for the murder by the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL); provide evidence that would make Israel a credible suspect in the crime; question the legitimacy or fairness of the STL investigation during the past five years; and prod the Lebanese government to undertake its own analysis of the credibility of available evidence and witnesses related to the crime investigation.

Nasrallah’s evidence was intriguing, often captivating, but, as he himself said, inconclusive. That was not a critical flaw in itself, because his main role these days is that of defense lawyer for the accused. Had he wanted to prosecute Israel in the court of public opinion – the only court he has access to right now since he rejects the STL as politicized – he would have provided more compelling and convincing evidence. His tactic as chief defense lawyer, however, was primarily to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the court, to provide just enough evidence to makes the STL prosecutor and judges – and the Lebanese government and public opinion – wonder if there is “reasonable doubt” about the widespread murder accusations against Syria and the growing accusations against Hizbullah members.

The doctrine of finding an accused person “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is one of the great foundations of criminal justice in the Western world, and Nasrallah knows that this is the moral and legal basis on which the STL and any other such international court operates. He cannot prove Hizbullah’s innocence because he believes the STL was a hatchet job from the start that aimed to discredit Syria and Hizbullah, regardless of the quality of its evidence. He also cannot prove Israel’s guilt because he does not seem to have sufficient conclusive evidence, or he is not revealing it now.

So his best option seems to be the one he has chosen, to promote “reasonable doubt” in several spheres: Has the available evidence all been thoroughly assessed? Have all existing and potential witnesses been credibly screened? Have the full consequences of Israeli spies and previous commando operations and murders in Lebanon been thoroughly vetted for possible links to the Hariri murder, however farfetched that possibility may seem in the eyes of those Lebanese and world powers behind the STL and the UN investigation?

In the past five years, when the Lebanese government took decisions that Hizbullah disliked or found threatening, Hizbullah responded by occupying parts of the downtown area or militarily taking over selected symbolic buildings in West Beirut. Today, when Hizbullah feels threatened again, it responds (for now) with … a multimedia show on primetime television. It challenges and rejects the ongoing STL investigation but also offers evidence for the court to consider. Its suggestion that the Lebanese government launch an honest investigation into the issues and evidence it has put on the table is, like the evidence offered Monday night, intriguing but not fully convincing.

Serious crime investigators explore all possible leads, however dubious they may feel about some of them. Hizbullah’s evidence may be merely a diversionary or delaying tactic, or, it could hold some important credible leads. The Lebanese government, the STL and Hizbullah are involved in a life-and-death dual political and legal process. The credibility of the political dimension requires absolute professionalism and impartiality in the quest for justice sphere, which means that all “reasonable doubt“ issues must be addressed firmly and quickly.


Photo © AP

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