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Hariri Tribunal Kicks Off

Supporters and mourners of the slain Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, gathered at his grave in Beirut’s rebuilt downtown on Sunday, carrying pins and pictures bearing his portrait.

They gathered for the inauguration of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the international court tasked with finding the perpetrators of the suicide car bomb attack that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005.  It is also tasked with charging suspects in 10 other assassinations that have occurred in Lebanon since 2004.

The victims of those assassinations were commemorated Sunday, as the politicians from the anti-Syrian March 14 movement and their supporters laid wreathes at the site of the assassinations and the graves of the victims.

The last grave to be visited was Hariri’s, in a downtown he was responsible for helping rebuild, just as the UN tribunal began operations just outside The Hague.

Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, said at a press conference in the Netherlands that the court "is the first international anti-terrorist tribunal."

Although other UN tribunals have tried genocide and war crimes, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will be the first to investigate an individual assassination.  At the ceremony in Beirut, some felt the tribunal would bring justice in a region where few perpetrators of political crimes are ever caught.

“This will get all the assassins to jail,” said Nader Nakib, the head of the Future Youth movement, the youth section of the political party Hariri set up.  “It’s something all Arabs will be proud of.”

Others weren’t so sure.

At the heart of the investigation is Syria, whose intelligence services and army controlled Lebanon’s political and economic life from 1990, when Lebanon’s civil war ended.

Many in Lebanon blamed Syria for Hariri’s assassination. Huge demonstrations in Beirut and international pressure, especially from the U.S. and Europe, forced Syria to withdraw its troops and overt intelligence presence. A preliminary UN report found Syria was likely behind Hariri’s murder. Syria denies any involvement.

Some supporters of the court fear Syria will use the tribunal as a bargaining chip in any negotiations with the U.S. or Israel. Even if it’s not, ceremony attendees like Fadi Bouz say those responsible for Hariri's murder are high up in the Syrian government, and are unlikely to ever be charged.

“Whoever is found guilty, it’s not going to be the top,” said Bouz, an auditor at Ernst and Young.  “I don’t think they will try the true suspects.  They will forgive the top decision makers.”

The court’s next move will be to charge suspects in the assassination.

Four of Lebanon’s former powerful intelligence chiefs are being held in Beirut.  They headed the country’s security services at the time of Hariri’s assassination and were detained at the request of the UN investigator.  The Generals’ supporters have said the former chiefs are being held illegally, and that the court has been politicized and will be used as a tool against both Syria and Hezbollah.

The court is not expected to get anything done anytime soon.  UN officials say the trials could take up to five years.