I've met and interviewed more than a few Hezbollah men over the years. They are ascetics — a dour, mirthless lot, utterly convinced of their moral superiority, as religious fanatics so often are.

Still, I can't help but imagine them howling with laughter, tears of hilarity streaming into their beards, at the latest statements from the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

That is the body charged with investigating and prosecuting the assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

As every Lebanese must know by now, Hezbollah was almost certainly directly involved in the spectacular bomb blast that killed Hariri and 22 others six and a half years ago, an event that triggered a brief popular uprising, and an end to the Syrian occupation of the country.

UN investigators have assembled evidence that overwhelmingly points to agents of Hezbollah, the Party of God, and, indirectly, its top leadership.

I and a team of CBC colleagues produced a detailed report last fall revealing much of that evidence, as well as the UN inquiry's early failings.

Several former UN employees painted a hapless picture: ill-equipped foreigners stumbling around Lebanon's treacherous landscape, making lots of noise but little progress.

The villains, meanwhile, provided them with false leads and perhaps even penetrated their ranks, which probably led, among other things, to the assassination of the one courageous Lebanese policeman who did make serious progress on the investigation.

Still no prisoners

As UN agencies tend to do, the Hariri tribunal became a self-perpetuating institution, setting up its own bureaucracy, devouring hundreds of millions in funding, including considerable amounts from Canada.


Lots of evidence, no arrests. In 2010, a UN team reconstructs the site where Rafik Hariri was killed five years earler. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Now set up in The Hague, it has judges, prosecutors, research staff, investigators, administrators, detention facilities and even advocates for the accused.

Just no prisoners.

In June, the tribunal finally issued public indictments against four individuals.

Among them is Mustafa Amine Badreddine, who heads Hezbollah's "special forces" unit of assassins and hard men.

Unsurprisingly, no one has been arrested by the Lebanese government, which is supposed to be the STL's enforcement arm.

Early last week, the STL's press office issued a short release saying the Lebanese prosecutor-general had reported to the tribunal: "He stated that so far none of the four people who are accused has been detained."

No kidding.

Pretty please

Hezbollah not only has a hammerlock on the Lebanese parliament, it runs the most powerful militia in the country and has threatened, among other things, to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its agents.

Presumably, Lebanon's prosecutor-general would prefer to keep his.

Then, a few days after the prosecutor-general's report, the UN tribunal's chief judge, Antonio Cassese, issued a remarkable public declaration.

First, he said, he remains "confident" that Lebanese authorities will persist in tracking down and arresting the indicted men. (One presumes the judge was being diplomatic. Either that or he's deluded.)

He then appealed directly to those charged: The tribunal, he assured them, works on a "firm presumption of the innocence of the accused." It is beholden to no nation or political power, he said, and is interested only in the truth.

"I therefore urge all the indictees to come before the tribunal," he pleaded. The judge even offered to try them via video link if they preferred to remain in Lebanon.

Just please give yourselves up and let us put you on trial. Pretty please.

The Israeli smokescreen

No doubt, all this back and forth amused Hezbollah's leadership, which long ago announced its own theory: Israel did it.

This is nonsense, but it works for Hezbollah on several levels.

For one, defending Israel is simply bad for one's health in the Arab world, which also loves a conspiracy theory involving "the Jews." (A secret Israeli underground bomb, unseen Israeli drones, a ghostly Israeli hit team, etc.)

The Israel-did-it theory also plays into the mystique of invincibility enjoyed by Mossad, the Israeli spy service, in the Arab world.

It's an undeserved reputation, but one Hezbollah has often used to its advantage.

(In reality, Mossad agents have, over the years, killed the wrong target, been thwarted, arrested and publicly humiliated during apparent assassination attempts, including recently in Dubai where they were extensively photographed by surveillance cameras. What's more, Lebanese authorities have in the past few years rolled up an entire network of Israeli spies in that country.)

That the Mossad could, or would, carry out the complex, long-term operation that killed Hariri is ridiculous.

Under pressure in Lebanon, the UN tribunal actually investigated the Israel theory and found not a shred of evidence. Still, judging from the tidal wave of reaction to my documentary last fall, an awful lot of people in Lebanon and the West want to believe it.

A strengthened Hezbollah

The Israel theory further polishes Hezbollah's power and reputation as a self-declared vanguard against Israeli aggression.


Who killed Rafik Hariri? His assassination in February 2005 rocked the power arrangements in the Middle East and turned him into an overarching symbol of everything that was wrong in Lebanon.

This is, after all, the only Arab organization that has ever won a military victory against the Israelis — chasing Israel's occupying army out of southern Lebanon in the spring of 2000.

In 2006, Hezbollah goaded Israel into launching a deadly air, naval and ground war against Lebanon in which Israel failed to achieve its stated goals of crushing Hezbollah and compelling the release of Israeli prisoners there.

In the aftermath, Hezbollah acquired more rockets, rebuilt its positions and came out of the whole exercise even stronger.

By portraying the UN tribunal as a stooge of Washington and Israel, Hezbollah has effectively taken over Lebanon's government.

Against that backdrop, the hapless pleas of an Italian judge sitting in The Hague barely qualify as an irritant.

In fact, the tribunal's continued machinations just make the Western powers that set it up look all the more weak-kneed to the Arab street, particularly given the West's relative indifference to the wholesale slaughter in Syria.

In any event, Hezbollah clearly couldn't care less about the tribunal. Nor does the rest of the Arab world.

There will probably be a trial, in absentia. There may even be convictions. But the people who killed Rafik Hariri will get away with murder. In fact, they already have.