Will the Canadian get his man?

Nahlah Ayed on the Canadian prosecutor investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

When former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was murdered in 2005, Daniel Bellemare was in the twilight of a long career in Canada's justice system. He was just over two years away from retirement and the opportunity to finally spend his days enjoying the fruits of a long and distinguished career.

For Bellemare, the Hariri assassination was just a news story-a remote event that happened very far away from Ottawa, where he lived at the time.

For Lebanon, however, that assassination on a picturesque road along Beirut's seafront was transformative and almost inconceivable.

Pro-Syian Lebanese gather on Feb. 25, 2009 to support the release of three men, arrested in 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The three were freed on bail just days before the international tribunal, headed by Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, was to begin making its case. (Mahmoud Tawil/Associated Press)

Though not everyone liked him, nor his approach to peacemaking, Hariri was, in many respects, Lebanon's healer, its post-civil war talisman.

What's more, the multibillionaire had the best protection money could buy. Yet somehow, someone managed to kill him using 1,800 kilograms of TNT. Hariri's seemingly invincible convoy was left a charred wreck. Twenty-three people died and the course of an entire nation's history was abruptly altered.

I had just arrived in Lebanon a few months earlier. My own apartment, my first in Lebanon, was caught up in the explosion and badly damaged. It was an abrupt introduction to Lebanon's violent underbelly.

Over the coming years, both Lebanon and I would be shaped by the events of that dark day. And though he didn't know it at the time, so would Bellemare.

Today's Beirut

Fast-forward four years: too many bombs, assassinations, clashes, wars, protests and sit-ins. It's now me riding in a speeding armoured car through the now familiar streets of downtown Beirut, a stone's throw from where Hariri met his fate.

As the convoy careered down the wide boulevards, it's hard not to think of what happened to Hariri and just how easily it could happen again.

UN investigator, now prosecutor Daniel Bellemare (right) with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Next to me was the man this convoy was protecting: the UN's chief investigator of the Hariri murder, Daniel Bellemare.

A Quebec native, Bellemare was once the longest serving head of Canada's Federal Prosecution Service. He retired in 2007 and then, just a few months later, he accepted the UN job.

Now he is something of a marked man himself because there are people out there who do not want to see him succeed in finding the perpetrators.

"Those crimes were not committed by ghosts or by Martians," Bellemare says, his hand resting on a UN-issue blue helmet and flak jacket, occasionally staring out of the tinted windows.

"There are actual people who did that and those people are still around. So they're not particularly fans of ours."

Targeting convoys

After the attack on Hariri, there have been 20 more bombings and attempted assassinations (several successful), all of which were added to the investigating commission's file. In the vast majority of cases in which individuals were targeted, they were on the road, often in convoys.

Bellemare's security team knows that all too well. So his convoy in Lebanon is second to none: a swarm of black SUV's accompanied and driven by armed, well-trained UN security personnel who use deceptive tactics to throw off their foes. Predictability is their enemy.

Arriving in early 2008, Bellemare is the third investigator to head the commission's work. Since then, he has doggedly pursued the four-year probe, bringing new momentum but, unlike at least one of his predecessors, largely staying quiet.

Still, the 57-year-old was already very well known here the moment he touched down at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, renamed after Hariri's death.

"It's strange. I'm not used to that," he tells me "I'm not here to be known, I don't like to be known. So now to be always accompanied by security and so on, it's overwhelming at times."

Supporters of Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian majority and son of slain Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, wave Future Movement flags as they walk in front of white ambulances carrying the coffins of slain anti-Syrian lawmaker Walid Eido and his son Khaled who were killed by an explosion in Beirut in June 2007. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

Next stage

When Bellemare decided to give us an interview, more than a year after he first arrived, it was in the final weeks of his and the commission's time in Beirut, and at the tail end of my own assignment here.

As of March 1, the commission will be based in The Hague, where the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon officially begins operating. 

Bellemare then changes roles and becomes the special tribunal's chief prosecutor, which means he turns his attention to building a case.

Neither Bellemare nor I knew Hariri. Yet we've both come to know so much about him, his likeness, his family, and even what he looked like in death.

Hariri's legacy — both good and bad — is on full display on the streets the two of us now travel at high speed: from the refurbished Grand Serail (the prime minister's office) to the rebuilt downtown and the blue-domed, ornate mosque he was having built just before he died.

"(Hariri's) the reason why we're here," Bellemare reflects. "But on the other hand, we have to keep a cold head, not to fall into sentimentality. We're here to do a job and we have to stay focused."

Until Hariri's death, I had not been focused on Lebanon's convoluted political world, engrossed instead in what was happening in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. The explosion just metres from my new home forced me to change that mindset in a hurry.

Rafik Hariri's funeral in February 2005. (Associated Press)

A clean slate

Bellemare's initial cursory knowledge about Lebanon, Hariri and the circumstances of the assassination was actually a plus. When he went to UN headquarters in New York in 2007 to discuss the job, not knowing much was an indication that he came to the task with no biases.

"The more we talked about the case, I thought it was fascinating After a few hours of discussion, I was hooked."

He's still hooked. And despite all the political pressures and obstacles of working in Lebanon, Bellemare seems quite determined to find the killers and believes he will succeed.

"The reason I accepted (the job) is that I think I can contribute," he says. "We're here to put an end to impunity, to tell people that things can be different. If you commit a crime, chances are you will be identified, you'll be prosecuted, people will be found guilty."

After all that's happened here over the past four years — as well as all that's happened before — many Lebanese people have lost hope.

Many here cannot conceive of anyone being held accountable for murdering a politician, a journalist or even an ordinary person. They don't believe that officials at the UN investigating commission can be immune to political pressure or the lure of a bribe.

As Bellemare prepared to move on to the job of chief prosecutor in the Hariri case, he insists it is possible to change Lebanese minds and to do his job irrespective of the political undercurrents.

"If I could bring a little bit of what we have in Canada here, I would have made a huge difference," he says.

Adieu Beirut

In early February, Bellemare allowed us an unprecedented visit to the investigating commission's headquarters to see first hand how he and dozens of other investigators worked and lived: in isolation, far away from family and under threat.

He and I are standing at the edge of the mountain resort compound, a virtual fortress, contemplating Beirut from a distance. He points out bits of the capital that he will probably never get to know.

Despite the severely restricted life here, the threat of assassination and the barrage of accusations and criticism constantly levelled at him, Bellemare is conflicted about leaving.

"One of my biggest regrets is not to be able to go downtown, to meet people, to talk to them. I could learn so much," he says wistfully.

"This will come to an end shortly. Everybody in the commission will miss Lebanon. It's such a beautiful country. People are so hospitable; the Middle East is so rich. We'll miss it for sure."

In several interviews over two days, Bellemare was happy to discuss the challenges he faces and, in general terms, how the investigation is proceeding. But he refused to provide any theories on who did it, or why, or whether he was even close to being able to name names.

This has been his strategy from the start, to ensure that his investigation could stand up to scrutiny.

He also wouldn't speculate on when he would actually make his findings public.

As I start my fifth year in Lebanon, it would have been great to have that closure. The turbulence of the years I spent here changed my life.

I have come to know Lebanon intimately. But years on I am still confounded as to why Hariri died, why Lebanese should suffer so much violence over and over again, years after they thought their wars were finally over.

Bellemare never got to know Lebanon the way he would have liked. But he walks away with what may be the most intimate knowledge available — save for the perpetrators themselves — of who killed Hariri and how; information that is at the heart of what went wrong in Lebanon and what continues to go wrong since Hariri died.

Bellemare's life, too, has been transformed. Danger is now his constant companion. Retirement now seems a long way in the future.

Left behind, Lebanon waits for answers.