BEIRUT — Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has returned to Lebanon to mark the 10th anniversary of his father’s assassination, a slaying that sharply divided Lebanon.
Rafik Hariri was killed with 21 others, with more than 200 wounded, in a massive truck bomb on a Beirut seaside road on February 14, 2005.
Saturday’s visit marks Saad Hariri’s second return to Lebanon after four years in self-imposed exile. Hariri visited Lebanon briefly in August. He left Lebanon in January 2011 after his government was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies.
Hariri is scheduled to give a speech later Saturday at a ceremony marking the assassination.
Hariri’s father was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician. A United Nations-backed tribunal is trying in absentia five members of the Hezbollah terror group, the country’s most powerful Shiite faction, for the bombing.
The massive explosion that tore through his convoy on the Beirut seaside 10 years ago sent a tremor across the region and unleashed a popular uprising that briefly united the Lebanese and ejected Syrian troops from the country. But a decade later, and despite millions of dollars spent, justice remains elusive in a case that has been overshadowed by more recent turmoil.
And yet despite its failings, the tribunal is still widely seen as a small but necessary step toward ending a culture of impunity in an increasingly violent region.
The February 14, 2005 assassination of Hariri, referred to by some as Lebanon’s Sept. 11, stunned a nation long used to violence and political assassinations. Hariri, a charismatic billionaire businessman, was the most prominent Sunni politician in Lebanon. Although a divisive figure, he was credited with rebuilding downtown Beirut from the ravages of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Anti-Syrian groups, then in the opposition, blamed the Syrian government for Hariri’s assassination, a charge denied by Damascus. Crowds of Lebanese flooded Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut in scenes that, in retrospect, resemble the Arab Spring uprisings that broke out six years later.
Syria, which kept about 15,000 troops in Lebanon, was forced to withdraw under pressure, ending the 30-year military domination of its smaller neighbor.
But Hariri’s killing and the subsequent investigation, which focused on Syria and its powerful Shiite Lebanese ally Hezbollah, sharpened the country’s sectarian divisions and heightened other intractable debates, including over the role of Hezbollah and its vast arsenal, which opponents want dismantled.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has cast the assassination and tribunal as an Israeli plot, has warned he would “cut off the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest the five Hezbollah suspects, saying the tribunal will never get its hands on them, not “even in 300 years.”
Court spokeswoman Marianne El Hajj said the tribunal is delivering justice, even without the defendants in court, and said she hopes it will have a positive impact across the Middle East and North Africa.
“The region is changing and its people are demanding justice and accountability,” she said.
A Western diplomat based in the Middle East said the tribunal “is showing that there is no place for impunity, although it’s hard to see anybody going to jail.”
“It has a symbolic value,” the diplomat said.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.