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In a Landmark Case, International Court Opens Trial Against Hezbollah Operatives

But none of those charged with crimes have actually been apprehended—illustrating the limits of justice when dealing with terrorists

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(L-R) Judges Walid Akoum, Janet Nosworthy, David Re, Micheline Braidy, and Nicola Lettier preside over the first hearing in the trial of four people accused of murdering former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague on Jan. 16, 2014. (Toussaint Kluitters/AFP/Getty Images)
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Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah wants war. His public wants war. But to get the war that he wants, he has to wait.

Last week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon trial against four suspects accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others opened in The Hague, despite the fact that none of the accused—four members of Hezbollah, including Mustafa Badreddine, cousin of Hezbollah’s late military commander Imad Mughniyeh—is currently in custody.

Instead, the courtroom was filled with the prosecution team, lawyers for the defense, and lawyers for the victims, as well as a scale model of the Beirut waterfront where Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14, 2005. In its opening remarks, the prosecution presented pictures of the devastation caused by the bomb—fires, a large crater, buildings in ruins, blood and body parts everywhere.

“I never saw that picture of my boss,” said one shaken former Hariri aide, referring to a photo that showed the victim’s charred legs sticking out from under a tarp that covered the rest of his corpse.

The Hariri camp, led by Rafik’s son Saad, wants justice, and so do the other Lebanese in attendance, victims themselves or relatives of other victims slaughtered or maimed in the Iranian-sponsored terror campaign that began nearly nine years ago. “It’s our only hope to get answers,” said Sami Gemayel, a member of the Lebanese parliament whose brother Pierre was assassinated in Beirut in 2006. “I lost a nephew, good friends, and colleagues,” said Marwan Hamade, a deputy and former minister, who narrowly escaped an October 2004 attempt on his life that seems to have initiated the bloodshed.

War criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity have been brought before international tribunals before, but this trial represents a watershed of sorts—the first time that terrorists are being tried in an international court. And even more than that, as one tribunal official told me, “It’s an alternative to responding to terrorism with violence.” In short, as he explained delicately, perhaps afraid to hurt my feelings, it’s about showing the Americans there is another way—a way that uses the civilized tools of the legal profession, in climate-controlled courtrooms — to prosecute the war on terror.

Perhaps that’s so. But it bears repeating that none of those accused of perpetrating the years-long string of assassinations—not Syria, Iran, or Hezbollah—are in custody. Contrary to what European officials may believe, justice is possible only when someone is willing and able to enforce it. Law depends on legitimate authorities owning a monopoly on violence and being lawfully able to drag suspects to court. Indeed, the reason that Lebanon has had to go to The Hague for justice is that the government of Lebanon is unable to put the four men on trial. If the government of Lebanon cannot stop Hezbollah from making its own foreign policy and thereby taking the entire country to war with Israel; if Lebanon can’t stop Hezbollah from sending its fighters to kill Sunni opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and thereby destabilize Lebanon’s own sectarian balance; then there is no way a government, in which Hezbollah and its allies sit in the Cabinet and parliament, is going to be able to drag the Party of God to trial.

And international bodies can’t, either, since without the hard power of the United States—or someone else—behind them, international treaties and agreements are meaningless. In fact, what both American advocates and critics of international law, like former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, seem to miss is that international law is not an end in itself, or a new kind of menace to American sovereignty, but an index of American power.


If European officials seem satisfied that the proceedings at The Hague are a giant step toward a new world order founded on the mighty abstraction of international justice, the actual parties to the case are likely to learn different lessons—beginning with the Lebanese themselves. What Saad Hariri and his followers want from The Hague is an end to impunity for political murder. “The message is that political assassinations are no longer accepted in the Middle East,” Hariri told me last week.

Himself a former prime minister of Lebanon, Hariri now lives in exile between Paris and Riyadh for fear of an assassination attempt. He recently announced that he will return to Beirut for elections this year, but he is still a likely Hezbollah target because the trial will not mark an end to impunity. What the trial, which some observers believe may last as long as a decade, may accomplish is a clear public identification of the criminals through real legal proceedings, including the presentation of forensic evidence and testimony.

This is hardly a small feat for the Middle East, a region where conspiracy theories carry the day—and where the principle of cui bono, or who benefits, almost always points an accusing finger at Israel. The tribunal has named the criminals—who are not Israeli, but Lebanese. Yet the criminals and their associates and sponsors will continue to roam free and target their opponents because no one is willing or able to seize their corporeal selves and throw them in jail.

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In a Landmark Case, International Court Opens Trial Against Hezbollah Operatives

But none of those charged with crimes have actually been apprehended—illustrating the limits of justice when dealing with terrorists