(Reuters) – A special United Nations tribunal set up to try suspects in the 2005 killing of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri began work in The Hague on Sunday. Here are some questions and answers about the tribunal:

HOW WAS IT SET UP? A suicide truck bomber killed Hariri and 22 others in Beirut on February 14, 2005. Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians said Syria was behind the attack, a charge Damascus denies. An outcry over the killing forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The Lebanese government, led by an anti-Syrian alliance, asked the United Nations to investigate the crime, along with 20 other political attacks that may have been connected. The U.N. Security Council established the tribunal in 2007.

WHO ARE THE SUSPECTS? No indictments have been issued. The Lebanese authorities hold four generals in connection with the Hariri killing. A Lebanese judge freed three other detainees on bail last week. Detlev Mehlis, the first U.N. investigator, implicated senior Syrian officials whose names appeared in a draft report but were removed in the final version. Reports by Mehlis’s successors, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellamare, who is now the prosecutor, have refrained from naming top suspects. "We will go wherever the evidence leads us," Bellemare wrote in an open letter to the Lebanese people last week.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Investigations will continue. Bellemare has 60 days to ask Lebanon to transfer people, such as the four generals, and evidence to The Hague. In theory, the tribunal is above politics, so indictments could come at any time. However, the court might decide to wait until after Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary election to avoid sparking instability.

WHAT ABOUT SUSPECTS NOT IN CUSTODY? If indictments are issued, suspects can surrender voluntarily, the tribunal can ask the Security Council to press states to hand them over, or it can try them in absentia. Syria has said it will not hand over any of its nationals to the court, but will try them and execute them itself if they are proven guilty. The tribunal is unlikely to accept this or to share its evidence with the Syrian authorities. Lebanon has cooperated fully with the tribunal, but an election win for Syria’s Lebanese allies might alter its stance. Pro-Syrian groups such as Hezbollah say they back the tribunal, but fear it could be used politically against them and Syria.

HOW LONG WILL IT ALL TAKE? The tribunal’s registrar, Robin Vincent, said last week he expected the court to complete its work in three to five years. It will employ seven international and four Lebanese judges, and will apply Lebanese law, excluding penalties such as death and forced labor. Life imprisonment will be the maximum sentence.

WHAT ARE THE DIPLOMATIC IMPLICATIONS?The United States, other Western countries and anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians initially viewed the tribunal as a potent weapon against Damascus. Syria displayed corresponding anxiety. But as investigations proceeded at a deliberate pace, the tribunal has appeared more independent and less politicized. U.S. President Barack Obama is exploring a possible detente with Syria, raising fears among anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians that the tribunal might lose its teeth as part of a deal with Damascus. However, Obama marked the anniversary of Hariri’s assassination by reaffirming U.S. support for the tribunal in bringing justice to those behind "this horrific crime."

daily star BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with prosecuting suspects in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri began work on Sunday promising an impartial investigation into his murder four years ago. Speaking at an opening ceremony in the tribunal’s future courtroom, Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare called the court the world’s "first international anti-terrorist tribunal," and told an audience of high-ranking international figures he would soon request Lebanon transfer all suspects and detainees to the court in The Hague. "No request has been made yet but it will be made as soon as possible," he said, adding it would be put to the Lebanese authorities within the next two months.

"Our work will be independent. We work according to evidence, the law and our own conscience," he added.

Self-made billionaire and five-time Prime Minister Hariri was killed with 22 others in a massive car bomb that targeted his convoy as it passed through Beirut’s Ain al-Mreisse seafront on February 14, 2005. His slaying was the first in a string of political assassinations targeting Lebanese anti-Syrian figures, although Damascus has fervently denied any involvement. His killing caused a popular uprising that successfully pushed for Syria’s withdrawal after almost 30 years of political domination.

Three civilian suspects held in connection with Hariri’s assassination were released on bail Wednesday. Justice minister Ibrahim Najjar said the release of Lebanese brothers Ahmad and Mahmoud Abdel Aal and Syrian national Ibrahim Jarjura was not politically motivated. Four former generals who led Lebanon’s pro-Syrian security institutions at the time of Hariri’s murder remain in detention.

LAF Intelligence head Raymond Azar, Mustapha Hamdan of the presidential guard, Internal Security Forces Director Ali Hajj and Jamil al-Sayyed from General Security were taken into custody in 2005 under the orders of former chief investigator Detlev Mehlis. The men have not been formally charged but were brought into custody on suspicion of terrorism, murder and attempted murder – accusations that their lawyers say are based on the false testimony of a witness later discredited by investigators. Sayyed’s lawyer Akram Azuri said on Friday he was "extremely optimistic" the four generals would be released imminently.

If they are transferred from Lebanon, the former generals will be held at the Scheveningen detention center in The Hague, which is also used to detain suspects of the International Criminal Court and International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Bellemare can then request the men remain in custody or be released. "I will submit an indictment when I am satisfied personally and professionally that I have enough evidence," Bellemare said at the ceremony. Syrian cooperation with the tribunal was satisfactory, he said, adding he did "not want to get into specifics about what we have done in Syria and what we have obtained in Syria."

Registrar Robert Vincent earlier requested a moment’s silence from the audience. "While the tribunal exists for many reasons, we should never lose sight of one of the principle reasons for its existence: the suffering of the victims and their families. In the end we are not here for the United Nations, nor are we here for the international community but for Lebanon. We are not here for the perpetrators of crime but for the victims of the crimes," he said. In an interview with al-Mustaqbal newspaper on Saturday, Vincent stipulated that any warrants issued by the tribunal would be "compulsory international documents" that UN members had to abide by.

UN Undersecretary for Legal Affairs Patricia O’Brien meanwhile stressed at the ceremony the tribunal’s equal and impartial treatment of suspects, adding that the immunity currently being enjoyed by certain perpetrators would "not last for long." The Lebanese could expect regular updates of the tribunal’s proceedings, O’Brien said, restating that four Lebanese and seven international judges would preside over court hearings. Although the names of the Lebanese judges have been kept a secret for security reasons, former minister Charles Rizk told Voice of Lebanon Radio on Sunday that it was widely speculated Ralph Riashi was onboard.

Absent from the ceremony was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who issued a statement from Rwanda lauding the rribunal’s opening. "The commencement of the tribunal’s work marks a decisive milestone in the tireless efforts by all Lebanese and the international community to uncover the truth, bring those responsible for this assassination and related crimes to justice and end impunity," he said.

In Beirut, hundreds of politicians from the March 14 coalition descended upon Hariri’s memorial to lay wreaths and watch the tribunal ceremony on giant television screens.

"Today the flag of justice for Lebanon is being raised in The Hague. It is a historic date," said Hariri’s son Saad, whose Future Movement leads the coalition. "March 1 is the fruit of the efforts of all Lebanese people who supported the establishment of the court and who refused to yield to threats and terror," he said. The tribunal will "punish the criminals but at the same time it will be a tool for the protection of Lebanon, its leaders, its thinkers, its people and its democratic system against organized crime."

Former LBC anchorwoman May Chidiac, who survived an attempt on her life in 2005, hoped the tribunal would mark the end of an era of impunity in Lebanon. "The criminals now know that the hand of justice will get them," she said. Outside the tribunal’s headquarters in The Hague, a small crowd of Lebanese gathered in support, one of whom waved a banner that read "Thank you Holland" in Dutch.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora expressed his gratitude to the UN investigators and Lebanese security forces for their efforts to bring Hariri’s killers to justice, and reiterated the "full support" of the Lebanese government toward the tribunal. "The launching of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon four years after the Hariri assassination constitutes a new and serious beginning for ending the chain of unpunished assassinations in Lebanon," Siniora said. The Lebanese hoped to protect their country from terrorists, he said, and were not seeking to avenge Hariri’s killing.

The tribunal’s launch also saw statements of support from Lebanon’s allies. The court was a "clear sign" that Lebanon’s sovereignty was non-negotiable, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said on Sunday. The US hoped the tribunal would "help deter further violence and end a sad era of impunity," he said in a press statement. "Too many Lebanese families have never seen justice for the murder of their loved ones."

A Russian Foreign Ministry official meanwhile told Al-Hayat on Sunday that Moscow would endorse all rulings made by the tribunal. Russia had no doubt about the court’s objectivity, the official said, but hoped it would not affect Lebanon’s political scene or the country’s June legislative elections.

Hizbullah denies ‘unfounded’ report that it photographed Tribunal’s HQ

BEIRUT: Hizbullah on Sunday rejected allegations that it photographed the headquarters of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and that the group had refused to cooperate with UN investigators.

French newspaper Le Monde published a report on Saturday claiming Hizbullah members recently photographed the area around the tribunal’s headquarters in The Hague. The story was run on the front page of An-Nahar newspaper Sunday. "Deduce the political conclusions you want," Le Monde quoted tribunal Registrar Robin Vincent as saying.

The paper also quoted a Lebanese source claiming Hizbullah had rejected a request by Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare to question eight Hizbullah members during his time as chief investigator of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC).

"Talk about members of Hizbullah taking pictures of the headquarters is stupid, unfounded and not worth commenting on," a Hizbullah statement said, adding that IIIC had never requested interviews with members of the party. "In the face of these lies, we ask ourselves whether the tribunal has been politicized from day one," said the statement, adding that the "sides" making the allegations were "well known." – The Daily Star