BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri handed over indictments and four arrest warrants to Lebanon Thursday, the state prosecutor said.
The long-awaited move was hailed as a “historic moment” by Hariri’s son, opposition leader Saad al-Hariri, who urged the government of Najib Mikati to cooperate with the court.
Prosecutor Saeed Mirza did not disclose the contents of the indictments, but they are expected to accuse four Hezbollah members of involvement in the Feb 14. 2005 bombing in Beirut which killed Rafik al-Hariri and 22 others.
Hezbollah, both a political movement and guerrilla army, which with its political allies forms a majority in Mikati’s new government, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and has called the court a tool of Israel and the United States.
It has vowed not to hand over any of its members and wants Lebanon to end cooperation with the tribunal, withdraw Lebanese judges and halt its contribution to the court’s funding.
The group shares the Shi’ite Islamist ideology of the Iranian state. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards set it up in 1982 to fight Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon.
A carefully-worded policy statement by Mikati’s cabinet, which was formed just two weeks ago after months of wrangling, said Thursday only that it “stressed the (importance of) truth in the crime against Rafik al-Hariri” and said it would monitor the progress of the court.
Mikati has said he wants the government to honor Lebanon’s international commitments unless a national consensus emerges to reverse that position — which is unlikely given Saad al-Hariri’s continued strong support for the tribunal.
“The Lebanese government is invited, politically, nationally, legally and ethically, to implement its commitments toward the tribunal. There is no reason for anyone to run away from this responsibility,” Saad al-Hariri said in a statement.
“It is time to put an end for the episodes of killing. The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close.”
The indictments triggered a political crisis in January when they were submitted to the pre-trial judge. It brought down Hariri’s national unity government when Hezbollah and its allies resigned in protest at his refusal to renounce the court, just days before the tribunal prosecutor filed the still-secret indictments to a pre-trial judge.
The indictments have been twice amended while the pre-trial judge assessed whether there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
International condemnation of the 2005 killing forced neighboring Syria to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Hezbollah continues to enjoy strong moral, political and military support from Tehran and Damascus. The United States lists the group as a terrorist organization.
Shadowy groups linked to Hezbollah hijacked Western planes and launched suicide attacks on Western embassies and targets and kidnapped Westerners in the 1980s.
Six months after the assassination of Hariri, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were arrested at the request of the U.N. investigator. A report delivered to the U.N. Security Council implicated high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder.
The generals were released in 2009 for lack of evidence.