Special court opens to prosecute Hariri assassination suspects

An international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri opened in the Netherlands on Sunday.

An international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri opened in the Netherlands on Sunday with officials observing a moment of silence.

Court prosecutor Daniel Bellemare of Canada looks on during an opening ceremony of an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. ((Bas Czerwinski/Associated Press))

Those attending the tribunal's inauguration ceremony, in Leidschendam outside The Hague, paused to reflect on the deaths of Hariri and 22 others in a February 2005 suicide bombing in Beirut.

A small group of Lebanese gathered outside the Special Court for Lebanon to show their support. One of them waved a small piece of paper bearing the words "Thank you Holland," written in Dutch.

Four pro-Syrian generals are being held in custody in Lebanon in connection with the truck bombing. None of them has been charged formally with Hariri's murder.

Canadian Daniel Bellemare, the court prosecutor, said Sunday in a television interview that he expects to ask within weeks for Lebanon to hand over the generals to the court.

The request, "will be made as soon as possible," Bellemare told pan-Arab al-Arabiya satellite TV channel.

"I have no reasons to believe that the Lebanese authorities will not respond in a timely fashion to the request," he added.

Lebanon's justice minister, Ibrahim Najjar, has said Lebanon will co-operate fully with the UN tribunal.

In a letter published in Lebanese papers on Saturday, Bellemare said the tribunal is committed to "help the people of Lebanon find the truth."

"We will not be deterred by the obstacles or the size of the challenge. We are persistent. We will go wherever the evidence leads us. We will leave no stone unturned," he wrote.

'If you commit a crime, you will pay the price'

In an exclusive interview with the CBC's Nahlah Ayed, Bellemare spoke about the challenges he faced during more than a year in Lebanon acting as the chief UN investigator in the Hariri case, including constant concerns about his security.

For more on Bellemare and his work for the past year, watch Nahlah Ayed's documentary report Monday night on The National.

"I think that to put an end to impunity, to allow the Lebanese people to believe in a system of justice that, if you commit a crime, you will pay the price, I think this is an ideal that's worth fighting for," he said.

The court was set up by the UN Security Council in 2007 and comprises both foreign and Lebanese judges. It is based in the Netherlands to ensure the safety of staff and an impartial trial.

It will have four Lebanese and seven international judges and will use Lebanese law. The court does not have power to use the death penalty.

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, although Damascus denies any involvement.

After the assassination, mass street protests in Lebanon and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from its neighbour after a 29-year presence.

With files from the Associated Press