UN-backed court to issue verdicts in Lebanon's Hariri case

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FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2005 file photo, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, center, speaks to people outside the Lebanese Parliament minutes before an explosion killed him and 22 others, in Beirut, Lebanon. More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts this week in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing. (AP Photo, File)

BEIRUT – More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts this week in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing, which deeply divided the tiny country.

The verdicts on Tuesday at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, based in a village on the outskirts of the Dutch city of The Hague, are expected to further add to soaring tensions in Lebanon, two weeks after a catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port that killed nearly 180 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed thousands of homes in the Lebanese capital.

Unlike the blast that killed Hariri and 21 others on Feb. 14, 2005, the Aug. 4 explosion was believed to be a result of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that accidentally ignited at Beirut's port. While the cause of the fire that provided the trigger is still not clear, Hezbollah, which maintains huge influence over Lebanese politics, is being sucked into the public fury directed at the country’s ruling politicians.

Even before the devastating Beirut port blast, the country’s leaders were concerned about violence after the verdicts. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group.

Tensions between Sunni and Shiites in the Middle East have fueled deadly conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to a smaller scale in Lebanon. Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.

One analyst believes the lengthy investigation and trial have rendered the result almost redundant. The defendants remain at large.

Michael Young of Carnegie Middle East Center wrote recently that the verdicts “will seem like little more than a postscript to an out-of-print book.”

“The U.N. investigation was glowingly referred to once as a mechanism to end impunity. It has proven to be exactly the contrary,” Young wrote, saying those believed to have carried out the assassination “risk almost nothing today.”