- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — An international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the slaying of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri opened Sunday with a moment’s silence and a pledge to impartially investigate the politically charged case.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Special Court for Lebanon, prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said he will continue his investigations without political interference and said he will call “as soon as possible” for Lebanese authorities to turn over four pro-Syrian generals who are suspects in the case.

Bellemare, a Canadian, said he could issue several indictments as a result of his wide-ranging investigation into the Feb. 14, 2005, suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on a Beirut seaside street, but he would not say when.

“I will submit an indictment when I am satisfied personally and professionally that I have enough evidence,” he told reporters packed into a gymnasium that is to be transformed this year into the tribunal’s high-security courtroom.

The generals led Lebanon’s police, intelligence service and an elite army unit at the time of the assassination. They are the only suspects in custody, though they have not been formally charged.

The new court has a wing ready to detain suspects in a Hague jail that already holds Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former Liberian President Charles Taylor, among other international war crimes suspects.

In Lebanon, hundreds of supporters of the anti-Syrian March 14 group gathered near Hariri’s tomb in downtown Beirut where they watched the opening session from two giant screens.

Earlier, dozens of anti-Syrian lawmakers laid wreaths on Hariri’s tomb and those of his bodyguards and aides who were killed with him four years ago.

Prominent anchorwoman May Chidaic, who survived a 2005 assassination attempt, praised the court’s opening.

“The dream became true and the criminals now know that the hand of justice will get them,” said Chidaic, who lost an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under her car.

As prime minister, Hariri, a billionaire businessman, was credited with rebuilding downtown Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war, and with trying to limit Syria’s influence.

Many in Lebanon believe Syria was behind the assassination. Damascus denies any involvement.

After the assassination, mass street protests in Lebanon and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from its neighbor after a 29-year presence. Bellemare, who called the new court the world’s “first international anti-terrorist tribunal,” said that so far in the four-year investigation, Syrian cooperation has been “satisfactory,” but he did not elaborate.

He declined to comment on what he would do if Syria failed to cooperate.

The French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche quoted Hariri’s son, Saad, as saying the tribunal would ensure that his father and others did not die in vain. “Thanks to this tribunal, a new Lebanon will be born,” he said, “a Lebanon where assassinations of politicians, journalists, lawmakers, that have taken place over 30 years will no longer have a place. It’s the end of impunity.”

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood also welcomed the court, calling it “a clear signal that Lebanon’s sovereignty is nonnegotiable. “Moreover, we hope it will help deter further violence and end a sad era of impunity,” Wood said in a statement. “Too many Lebanese families have never seen justice for the murder of their loved ones.”

The court was set up by the U.N. Security Council in 2007 and comprises seven foreign and four Lebanese judges who have yet to take office. It is funded by Lebanon and U.N. member states and based in the Netherlands to ensure the safety of staff and an impartial trial.

It will use Lebanese law, but unlike Lebanese courts cannot impose the death penalty. Unusually for an international tribunal, it can hold trials in absentia. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a trip through Africa, called the tribunal, “a decisive milestone” in the hunt for Hariri’s killers.

Opening the ceremony, the court’s registrar Robin Vincent asked for a moment’s silence for Hariri and the other victims and said the court was set up to provide justice for them.

“We are not here for the perpetrators of crimes but for the victims of crime,” he said.

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