12 Years, $800 Million, One Conviction: Lebanon Tribunal Winds Down Short of Answers


In a nation where the poor struggle to buy food, and electricity is scarce, medicine in short supply and corruption rife, the crimes of the past have a hard time competing with the suffering of the present.

So it may be little surprising that a special tribunal established to prosecute organizers of the massive car bomb that killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut in 2005 is preparing to shut down without offering answers about who ordered the killing or why.

But the story of the court — its ambition and its failure — helps illustrate the tragedy that continues to unfold in the small Mediterranean country. Lebanon asked for the court, requesting it to deal with a specific crime. It included Lebanese judges and staff and was largely based on Lebanese law. But since the government did not arrest any of the indicted suspects, the trial went ahead without anyone in the dock.

The assassination of Mr. Hariri, a towering politician in a country rocked by instability, rattled much of the Middle East. When the tribunal opened its doors in 2009 with a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, it set an ambitious agenda.

In a country that emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990 and has long been plagued by unsolved political murders, this was a chance to achieve accountability.

Unlike other international courts that deal with crimes against humanity and war crimes, this tribunal was hailed as the first to focus exclusively on terrorism, a subject of controversy in international law.

More than a decade later, however, the Lebanese government has run out of money for the court and international donors are drastically cutting back funds.

It had been clear for some time that the tribunal — set up near the The Hague, far from the troubled streets of Lebanon — was unlikely to ever bring those who orchestrated the attack to justice. So as it sputters to a close, it is unclear to donors what it actually accomplished.

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After five years of investigations and a six-year trial — at a cost of nearly $800 million — judges last August convicted only one Lebanese national, Salim Ayyash, for participating in a conspiracy to carry out the bombing. Three other men were acquitted.

All four were described as members of Hezbollah, the powerful Syria- and Iran-backed Lebanese militant group. But all were tried in absentia; not one of the accused has been arrested and if they ever are taken into custody, a whole new trial might have to be convened. While the 2,600-page judgment included ample political context and called the plot the work of a much larger group, judges avoided naming higher-ups, saying they lacked evidence.

International donors, including supporters of the tribunal, have criticized costly overstaffing — including 11 full-time judges and close to 400 staff — with little tangible results to show for it. And the fact that no suspect ever stood trial in person further undermined the court’s credibility.

So with two years left on the tribunal’s mandate, donors have been looking for a way to stop the process with minimal embarrassment. And it appears they found a blunt way of doing that.

“Some countries just stopped paying this year, or they paid less than in the past,” said David Tolbert, the chief administrator of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. “Others seemed to wait.”

According to tribunal records, several major donors, including Britain, Canada and Japan, halted their contributions for 2021, leaving the staff baffled.

“No one tells you, you must close,” Mr. Tolbert said in a telephone interview in early August. Representatives for the nations did not respond to requests for comment.

In June, with coffers nearly empty, judges were forced to suspend a new trial just days before it was set to begin. The fate of two pending appeals is in doubt.

By the end of July, 150 lawyers, investigators, clerks and others making up more than half the staff lost their jobs.

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Wajed Ramadan, the tribunal spokeswoman, said that as of July 31, there would be no judicial activity until further notice.

The abrupt handling of the tribunal has drawn criticism from international lawyers.

“It’s a travesty — the court’s mandate should be completed,” said Olga Kavran, who used to head its outreach section. “Allegations about mismanagement and a lot of criticism may be valid. But do you shut it down, or do you fix it?”

Supporters say the court’s investigators faced a shifting minefield in trying to find answers in the Hariri killing.

Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon’s government, campaigned against the tribunal, blocked avenues of investigation and threatened to go after anyone cooperating. Prosecutors were not allowed to use the intelligence they were handed by some Western governments. Other evidence did not meet the standards required in court. Some witnesses recanted or withdrew, fearing retribution.

In the end, prosecutors amassed a vast quantity of evidence, but opted to stay away from trying to prove who ordered the crime. Instead, they focused on technical evidence, tracking records of cellphones used by operatives on the ground before the attack.

Wrangling over finances has been a recurrent feature at the court.

But the current troubles began early this year as Lebanon’s financial crisis deepened. The economic collapse now ranks among the world’s worst since the mid-1800s, according to the World Bank.

The government said it could no longer afford to pay its agreed half of the budget. The United Nations offered $15.5 million in emergency funds. But not enough other funding has been found to fill the gap, and officials said the court will likely be forced to permanently close sometime next year, with its work unfinished.

There has been little reaction to the tribunal’s woes in Lebanon. Once a dominant and deeply divisive subject, the killing of Mr. Hariri has faded into the past, overtaken by the country’s deepening troubles, including the enduring effects of the enormous explosion that blew up Beirut’s port and killed more than 200 people one year ago.

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Still, at the tribunal, the threat of impending closure has come as a shock. Nidal Jurdi, a defense lawyer for victims, said that halting the upcoming trial was “a violation of the victims’ rights,” and he called for transparency and an explanation as to “why donors have decided to stop the funding.”

The judges in the new case have written that preparing the trial and then defunding it was “irrational and unreasonable” and an “extraordinary waste of money.” They said that the matter was now out of their hands and had to be addressed by the United Nations Security Council, which created the tribunal and had to define its future.

Prosecutors said the next trial was likely to throw further light on a system of political killings in Lebanon because it deals with the assassination of another Lebanese politician in 2004 and the attempted murder of two others around the same time.

But it is again centered on Mr. Ayyash, the only man convicted in Mr. Hariri’s killing, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

New funds were trickling in, court officials said last week, although some have been earmarked for winding down court business.

“This involves the archives, preservation of the evidence and court records and the protection of witnesses,” Mr. Tolbert said. “We are already making preparations.”

Some commentators have said the focus should now be on implementing the verdict and seeking the arrest of Mr. Ayyash.

The Biden administration appears to agree on the importance of finding Mr. Ayyash. In March, the U.S. State Department described him as a “senior operative” in Hezbollah’s assassination squad and offered a $10 million reward for helping identify or locate him.