BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president said that his rival, the prime minister, violated the constitution by sending to the United Nations an approval of an international tribunal to prosecute the suspected killers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tribunal has become a major point of contention in Lebanon’s power struggle between the anti-Syrian government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which supports the creation of the U.N.-backed court, and pro-Syrian factions, including the Shiite Hezbollah movement.
The tribunal aims to try suspects in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Hariri, who was killed along with 22 other people in a massive truck bomb in downtown Beirut. Many in Lebanon suspect Syria was behind the slaying. Syria has denied involvement.
Last week, Saniora sent a signed copy of the agreement for creating the court to the United Nations. U.N.
Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel signed the agreement in New York on Tuesday and returned it to Lebanon for ratification.
“We hope that the Lebanese government will take the necessary measures to able to ratify this process, in accordance with their constitutional requirement,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated Tuesday.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a top Syrian ally, sent a letter to Ban earlier saying Saniora’s signing of the agreement violated the constitution.
According to U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas, the accord was signed by the director-general of the Ministry of Justice on behalf of the Lebanese Republic, not by Saniora.
Lahoud said the contents of Saniora’s letter were “misleading and sidestepped reality and the rules of the constitution, conventions and national unity,” according to a copy of his letter to Ban, provided to the AP by Lahoud’s office.
“The purpose of (Saniora’s message) is to generate confusion and suspicion and to create an atmosphere for the Security Council to take over the subject and establish the tribunal,” he said.
Saniora shot back in a statement issued by his office later Tuesday, accusing the president of “harming Lebanon’s image as an independent state” and acting under outside orders to block the international tribunal.
In the statement, Saniora reiterated his position that the government is constitutional as long as it enjoyed a parliamentary majority.
In November, Hezbollah and its allies quit the Cabinet as it was moving to approve the tribunal after Saniora rejected their demand for a new national unity government which would give their camp veto power over major government decisions.
Saniora still has just enough members in his Cabinet for a quorum to approve the tribunal, but his opponents, including Lahoud, argue his government is no longer constitutional because it does not represent all sectors of Lebanese society.
The Hezbollah-led opposition has staged a campaign of protests for the past two months aiming to bring down Saniora’s government and replace it with one in which they would hold one-third plus one of the seats, allowing them to veto major decisions. Hezbollah, which is worried the tribunal will be politicized and used against it, says the government should not consider the tribunal until such a government is formed.
The protests turned violent in January when eight people were killed in clashes between opposition and government supporters, raising fears that the political crisis could once again push Lebanon into civil war. The fate of the tribunal now rests with the Lebanese.
Ratification requires a vote from Parliament, but Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, has refused to convene the legislature, where it would be brought to a vote.
If ratified by Parliament, the agreement would enter into force only when the government of Lebanon informed the United Nations in writing that it had complied with the requirements under Lebanese law, according to a senior U.N. official.
The United Nations considers mediation efforts led by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to resolve the dispute between the Saniora government and Hezbollah “of utmost importance,” the U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The main stumbling block is the absence of a dialogue, the official said, and one idea the mediators are considering is the creation of a working group where the parties could talk about the U.N.-Lebanon agreement and the statute for the tribunal.