The trial of those accused of killing Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri provides a rare chance at justice for a country more used to impunity for political assassinations.
But analysts say the proceedings are unlikely to have much of an impact on the country for now, with the consequences of the bloody war in neighbouring Syria overshadowing the trial.
Four suspects from Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah group, a key ally of Syria, will go on trial in absentia on Thursday, charged with the February 14, 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in downtown Beirut.
Despite the many years that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has taken to investigate the killing, and the absence of those accused, for some the trial is a much-needed bid to pursue justice.
“For the first time, there is an attempt to get to the truth,” said Sami Salhab, a professor of international law at the Lebanese University.
“In Lebanon’s history, most assassinations have happened… without results” in the investigation, he told AFP.
He said the case could drag on for years to come, but added “the role of the court will limit the number of terrorist attacks in Lebanon, including assassinations.”
Lebanon’s Future TV, which is owned by the Hariri family, began a media campaign two weeks before the trial’s opening entitled “January 16, 2014: the time of justice.”
“The path that we have chosen is one of justice,” said Ahmed Hariri, secretary-general of the Future Movement headed by Hariri’s son Saad.
“We still have a long way to go to reach the truth, to reach the first time in Lebanon that a political crime is prosecuted,” he added.
‘Obstacles and minefields’
“We knew that this path would be long and full of obstacles and minefields, and more assassinations… but the beginning of the trial and the achievement of justice will remove a key element that has always accompanied political life in Lebanon: political assassinations,” he said.
Lebanon was no stranger to political violence or assassinations even before Hariri’s death, having fought a 15-year civil war that saw numerous political figures targeted.
But Hariri’s killing was the beginning of an unprecedented string of assassinations targeting nine politicians and media figures who spoke publicly against the Syrian government.
Syria was accused of a role in all the deaths though no government officials have been charged.
But popular anger over its alleged involvement was sufficient to force Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon shortly after Hariri’s death, nearly 30 years after they first intervened in the country’s civil war.
Syrian ally Hezbollah has dismissed the tribunal as an “American-Israeli tool,” refusing to turn over its members for trial.
And as the trial opens, both Syria and Hezbollah remain powerful forces in Lebanon, with the tiny country increasingly battling with the consequences of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Hezbollah has dispatched troops to help President Bashar al-Assad’s army battle an uprising that many Lebanese Sunnis support.
The conflict has raised tensions in Lebanon, and been blamed for a spate of bombings in the country, including four in Hezbollah stronghold neighbourhoods in Beirut.
“The conflict in Syria overshadows the STL in terms of the media, you no longer have the same attention,” said Ghassan al-Azzi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University.
“The events in Syria post a very grave danger to all of Lebanon and the region, along with the explosions that have put Lebanon in the middle of a war with no apparent end,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the court has sunk under numerous other events and issues that have weakened its importance.”
For many Lebanese, the immediate security situation takes precedence over legal proceedings at a faraway court trying suspects in absentia.
On December 27, former Hariri advisor Mohamed Chatah was killed in a car bomb not far from the scene of Hariri’s death, and less than a week later a bomb hit a southern Beirut Hezbollah stronghold killing five civilians.
The country has also been without a government since March 2013 and is hosting an estimated population of more than a million Syrian refugees.
“We live in a very turbulent security situation, the formation of a government and security are much more important for people today than the court,” Azzi said.
With the indictments long public, Azzi said the court’s proceedings were unlikely to provide any “surprises.”
But if the suspects are found guilty, “the impact on the very fragile situation in Lebanon will be significant,” he added.
Ahmed Hariri remains optimistic that the trial will pave the way for justice in Lebanon.
“Now this train has started to move, no one can stop it. We will get justice. The opening of the trial is just the beginning.”