'That's it?' Drained Lebanese shrug off Hariri verdict
Lebanese member of parliament Bahiyya Hariri (C in white veil), sister of slain Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, prays over his tomb in the downtown area of the capital Beirut. AFP
Worn down by economic crisis and traumatised by Beirut's monster blast, the Rafic Hariri murder verdict after a 15-year wait for "the truth" came as an anti-climax for despondent Lebanese.
The Netherlands-based special court set up to investigate and try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Hariri issued a ruling Tuesday that fell short of many expectations.
With all four suspects presumed members of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, fears had been high that pro-Hariri and Hezbollah strongholds across Lebanon could erupt, whichever way the verdict went.
The UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) ended up finding one suspect guilty and acquitting three others, recognising that Hariri's death was politically motivated but stopping short of working far up the chain of responsibility.
All four suspects were tried in absentia.
The judges said they could not establish a direct link with the Hezbollah leadership or Syria, against whose military occupation of Lebanon the ex-premier had been campaigning just before his death.
"It was all useless... For 15 years they have taken money for nothing," Saad al-Ferikh, a young resident of Tariq al-Jdideh, the main Hariri bastion in Beirut, said moments after the verdict was broadcast on live television.
With Lebanon sinking ever deeper into economic crisis and poverty, many argued that the STL's huge budget, which exceeded that of the Lebanese justice ministry, was not money well spent.
Estimates of the tribunal's total cost range from $600 million to one billion.
"While few actually expected anyone to be apprehended, some argue that the trial itself sets a precedent in international law, said Faysal Itani, a deputy director at the Center for Global Policy.
"I'm not sure this precedent was worth all the time, money and political instability," he said.
Also in Tariq al-Jdideh, another resident, Rayan, argued that people had expected more of a foreign-based court, especially at a time when calls are growing for an international investigation into the August 4 blast at Beirut port that devastated the capital and cost more than 180 lives.
"After 15 years, they chose one person they want us to believe is responsible for this entire issue. It's a joke," said the young woman, surrounded by dozens of Rafic Hariri posters.
Karim Emile Bitar, a political science professor in France and Lebanon, also said the verdict was a letdown after widespread public demands over the years for the truth behind Hariri's murder.
"There's a feeling that the mountain has brought forth a mouse," he said.
Newspaper commentaries Wednesday diverged according to their stance on Hezbollah, but most agreed the protracted and costly experiment in international justice was inconclusive.
The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily ran a picture of the STL courtroom covering its entire front page with a red stamp across it that read: "Past sell-by date."
"The different parties in Lebanon will interpret the STL ruling to their liking," said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.
Some felt vindicated by the guilty verdict against one Hezbollah suspect, Salim Ayyash, who has gone underground, while others chose to highlight the acquittals, he said.
"Ultimately, it is a deeply unsatisfactory outcome because the basic questions are left unanswered and will continue to divide the Lebanese," Houry added.
None of the feared political tension spilled onto the street, however, and Bitar argued that may have been the only silver lining of an otherwise disappointing verdict.
"It was a very paradoxical verdict... but perhaps it was good for social peace in Lebanon, which can really do without more social tension at the moment," he said.
Lebanon is still licking its wounds from this month's blast, its worst peacetime tragedy, which came as it was already grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.
"So many catastrophes have happened since" Rafic Hariri's assassination, he said. "It isn't quite a non-event, but this verdict did not have the impact it could have had."