Death Becomes Them

Will the death of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine close the investigation on his involvement in the murder of former premier Rafik Hariri? Hezbollah Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

Will the death of Hezbollah’s Badreddine impact the course of justice?

BY Nicholas Noe

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will almost certainly continue the trial of four men accused of masterminding the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, even though a fifth defendant, Mustapha Badreddine, was apparently killed in Syria on May 13.

“The STL has to make a judicial determination concerning the reported death of Badreddine,” Wajed Ramadan, the STL’s spokesperson, tells Newsweek Middle East.

“The prosecutor has indicated to the trial chamber that they expect a confirmation from the Lebanese authorities shortly. Ultimately it will be up to the judges to decide if the information [provided by the Lebanese government] is adequate for declaring him deceased.”

Although the judges or the prosecutor could move to drop the case as a whole if the attack’s alleged leader, Badreddine, is determined to have died, such a dramatic move would be highly unlikely, according to several sources involved in the STL proceedings who requested anonymity.

Badreddine was indicted in absentia by the STL in July 2011 for the assassination of Hariri and 21 others who were killed when a suicide bomber detonated over a ton of explosives next to the convey carrying the ex-premier in Ain El Mreisseh, along Beirut’s coastline.

He commanded Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria and was killed by what the group later said was an artillery assault at a military airport in the capital, Damascus on May 13. Shortly after his death, Hezbollah issued a statement claiming that a Syrian rebel group—and not Israel—was behind the immediate attack that killed Badreddine.

Should the judges accept his death, the case against him will be closed and his defense team would see their work contracts terminated.

“The normal way things should proceed if you have an accused that is dead is you would get a death certificate and then move to have the indictment withdrawn,” explains Philippe Larochelle, a Canadian lawyer who resigned in March from the team defending an alleged co-conspirator, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, at the STL.

“But you have to consider what is at stake here. There are a number of financial interests involved,” he cautions.

“The whole enterprise, which has proven extremely expensive for the trial of essentially one man’s killing [over half a billion dollars has been spent to date], acts, at least in part, as a kind of self-perpetuating machine, no matter what one may think about its work in pursuing justice. With this court, we have seen a lot, so really anything can happen.”

Both the STL’s Ramadan and the Office of the Prosecutor declined to respond to Larochelle’s insinuation, with the prosecutor withholding comment on any tribunal matters “during this period.”

In addition to losing their jobs, removing Badreddine’s name from the case would also mean that the current defense team—that never actually met their client because he refused to present himself after the indictment was made public in 2011—would forgo the opportunity to exonerate him.

“I certainly hope he is not dead,” says Omar Nashabe, a consultant for the defense counsel that represents the rights and interests of Badreddine  and also a longstanding critic of the Tribunal’s legitimacy. “We have worked very hard to show how weak the prosecutor’s case is.”

One cannot rule out the possibility of the judges or the prosecutor rejecting the Lebanese government’s documentation of Badreddine’s death.

Some media reports have suggested that DNA evidence, rather than a death certificate, might even be demanded.
According to Nashabe, such a request might open up a new set of problems for the prosecution.

“If they have a reason to doubt the authenticity of the data provided by the Lebanese government, then this calls into question the many other times when the STL has accepted other government-supplied data—such personal status records and the telecommunications records upon which the prosecutor’s case rest. This could actually benefit the defense.”

Hezbollah sources say the party “will most likely refuse” to present the STL with evidence, including DNA to prove Badreddine’s death.

Although Hezbollah initially cooperated with the investigation that led to the STL’s creation in 2009, the group turned sharply against the court after it became clear through media leaks that Hezbollah cadres—and not Syrian officials, as was widely expected—would be indicted for the murder of Hariri.

The party further accuses the STL of being a puppet in the hands of its enemies, Israel and the U.S.

“Everything related to the STL is non-existent,” Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah intoned during his eulogy for Badreddine on May 20.

“We spoke enough about its [STL] fabrications, how it is used as a weapon to target the resistance [Hezbollah] by our enemies and to target the resistance morally as well.”

If Badreddine is dropped from the dock, as seems most likely at this point, at least one thing is certain: he will exit with much of the global media and the prosecutor casting him not only as a master terrorist but also as a mysterious apparition with almost no fixed identity.

“Badreddine passes as an unrecognizable and virtually untraceable ghost throughout Lebanon, leaving no footprint as he passes,” argued one of the prosecutors, Graeme Cameron, in his opening statement on January 17, 2014.

“Try as one might, it is virtually impossible to pass through the modern world without leaving traces of one’s presence, however minute. And it is ironic here that the very covert mobile phones, the very tools that Badreddine and others had taken such pains to acquire and operate anonymously, in the end betrayed not only their conduct but their identities.”

Shadow of A Ghost
But was Badreddine really such a ghostlike character?

For his primary enemies in the field, of course, he was an exceptionally clear and present danger.

He is believed to have played a key role in temporarily blocking the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and in orchestrating the October 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military personnel.

Several weeks later, apparently under the alias ‘Elias Al Saab,’ Badreddine was arrested in Kuwait and charged with masterminding a string of seven explosions, some targeting the U.S. and French diplomatic missions in the country.

In 1985 he was sentenced to death in Kuwait for ordering the assassination of the country’s ruler, but he managed to escape jail after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded its southern neighbor in 1990.

Over the past four years, Badreddine was widely reported to have played a leading role commanding Hezbollah’s forces in Syria under the nom de guerre Zulfikar.

But it was among his own peers, in the southern suburbs of Beirut where his family lives, that Badreddine was most clearly present, stitched into the fabric of a community broadly supportive of Hezbollah’s more than three decades-long conflict with Israel, as well as its more recent involvement in the Syria war.

Last year, in fact, he sat and received public condolences from hundreds of mourners who turned out for the funeral of Jihad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in January 2015.

Mughniyeh was the youngest son of Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander who worked closely with Badreddine throughout the past 34 years and who was also assassinated in Syria in February 2008.

According to several media reports, Badreddine received condolences from politicians of the March 14 movement, a loose grouping of parties that has been staunchly supportive of the STL from its inception as a U.N.-led investigation.

“The prosecutor has actually presented very little about who this man is,” says Larochelle, despite Badreddine’s public movements and longstanding notability in certain circles in Lebanon.

“Yes, there is a brief image of Badreddine as allegedly having a second identity as one Sami Issa—a wife-cheating high-roller living it up across Lebanon. But very little has been presented about any of the defendants in their social networks, their history in Lebanon and what the association with Hezbollah actually means as far as the assassination of Hariri is concerned,” he says.

“Rather than delving into such complications, the case begins and ends, where these guys communicate over what is alleged to be their mobile phones.”

If Nasrallah’s eulogy on May 20, is any indication, Badreddine’s position in the eyes of Hezbollah’s supporters, at least, is set to dramatically expand.

“No matter what one may think of him, he was one of the most important reasons why the resistance has been successful on the ground,” argues Bashir Saade, a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh and the author of the forthcoming book Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembrance.

“With his death, he will be placed alongside the other central martyrs for the party whose history and story is constantly retold.”

The reason, Saade argues, is that, “remembering his legacy—pulling him out of the media realm that cast him as a ghost, a terrorist or a philanderer—works to legitimize the resistance project itself and give it strength.”

Legitimization may be more important than ever for Hezbollah these days.

Its involvement in the Syria war has cost it a great degree of credibility and support in the Middle East, including among people who supported the party in its conflict with Israel.

Badreddine might never have been a ghost then, but on the battlefield that Syria has become, the process of his sanctification will likely prove a far more difficult task than it ever was in the past.

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