BEIRUT, 29 January (IRIN) – A two-day visit to Lebanon by a UN legal counsel to discuss a proposed international tribunal for suspects in last year’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was described as "fruitful" by government officials. UN Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel arrived in the capital, Beirut, on 26 January. While in Lebanon, he met with a host of high-level officials, including President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Justice Minister Charles Rizk and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh.

"It was a real opportunity, mainly for the justice minister, to present different options regarding the nature of the tribunal," said a ministry source who requested anonymity. Michel’s visit came within the rubric of UN Resolution 1644, adopted on 15 December 2005. That resolution was a response to Beirut’s request for a "tribunal of international character," the details of which were to be determined after discussions with UN officials.
Some local analysts say Beirut’s request for international help reflects the inability of the state, riven by sectarian and ideological differences, to provide a fair trial.

"The government is internally weak and cannot afford to handle a national trial," said Beirut-based political analyst Dimitri Hanna. "The government machinery – its institutions, judiciary and others – cannot respond to these demands," he said.

"The government doesn’t have the resources required and has to face security issues that force it to seek international help," Hanna added.

The UN inquiry into the February 2005 Hariri murder has implicated high-ranking Syrian officials and so far led to the arrest of 12 Syrian and Lebanese citizens.

Suspects include four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals formerly in charge of state security. Syria, meanwhile, has denied any involvement in the killing.

The Syrian military and intelligence apparatus withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005, largely as a result of international pressure, after a presence of almost 30 years. Nevertheless, many politicians still fear Syrian influence within the judiciary.

"Over the past year, several magistrates have been physically attacked and fear for their lives," alleged lawyer and MP Boutros Harb.

According to the justice ministry source, Rizk proposed a number of options, including a trial in Lebanon headed by foreign magistrates or a tribunal abroad presided over by Lebanese magistrates.

A final formula, however, has yet to be worked out.

In a press release, Michel stated that, while the UN had a degree of experience establishing international courts, there was no "model" to be emulated in this particular case.

"My mission is to assist the Lebanese government in defining the nature and the reach of the international assistance requested with the objective of bringing those involved to trial," he was quoted as saying.

After meeting with Siniora on 27 January, Michel said he would inform UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of the results of his consultations.

"We will continue to think in all directions," he said.

Michel’s visit is the first of several planned working trips to the Lebanese capital. Lebanese officials said they expect him to return as early as next month.