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Hariri Tribunal Starts Work in Netherlands

The international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri four years ago was formally constituted in The Hague on Sunday, March 1.

The aftermath of a car bombing is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Feb. 14, 2005

Hariri was killed in a bomb explosion on Feb. 14, 2005

Constituted under a United Nations mandate, the court is to examine a number of issues, including allegations that Syria was behind the killing of Hariri in a massive Beirut bomb blast on Feb. 14, 2005.

Syria has repeatedly denied allegations of involvement in the Hariri attack, in which 22 other people were also killed.

Court registrar Robin Vincent told the opening that the tribunal was in the first place not so much for the United Nations or for the international community as "for Lebanon."

A group of several dozen Lebanese outside the heavily-fortified tribunal building -- a former Dutch secret service gym in The Hague suburb of Leidschendam-Voorburg -- waved national flags.

Historic day

Saad Hariri outside Lebanese parliament

Saad Hariri called March 1 a historic day of justice

Hariri's son Saad called the opening of the court a historic day for his country.

"Today the flag of justice for Lebanon is being raised in The Hague; he said in a statement issued in Beirut. "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."

Four Lebanese generals regarded as pro-Syrian are expected to be charged by The Hague court in connection with the murder. A Lebanese investigating judge Friday rejected a request for their release.

The four -- Mustafa Hamdan, commander of the presidential guard, Jamil Sayyed, director of security services, domestic security head Ali Hajj, and the commander of army intelligence Raymond Azar -- have been detained in Lebanon since 2005.

Canadian Daniel Bellemare assumed the role of the tribunal's chief prosecutor. The 56-year-old had been the head UN investigator in the case since November 2007.

Trial likely to last years

Lebanese national flags are waved over Lebanese supporters of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri during a demonstration

It will likely take years for the people of Lebaon to know how Hariri was killed

Bellemere pledged to do all in his power to get to the bottom of the assassination, and had already made clear before Sunday's formal opening of the tribunal that he would seek the transfer of the four generals from Lebanon.

The four have not been formally charged. Bellemere has 60 days to apply to the Lebanese authorities for the transfer of suspects and evidence files.

The tribunal's hearings are expected to last for several years, and it is expected that months will pass before anyone actually goes on trial.

"Indictments will be filed when I am satisfied I have enough evidence," Bellemare told reporters.

The tribunal will operate under Lebanese law -- but without the death penalty -- with an international panel of 11 judges and a staff of 300 under an initial mandate of three years. The highest sentence it will be able to impose will be life imprisonment.

It is financed to 49 percent by the Lebanese government and 51 percent by donor nations including the United States and Germany -- to the tune of 40 million euros for the first year, financing which has already been guaranteed.

Open wounds

A Lebanese man touches a poster of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that has been signed by mourners on a wall in Martyr's Square, central Beirut

Lebanon remains divided between supporters and opponents of Syria

With Lebanese society still polarized into pro and anti-Syrian camps, and having just emerged from an 18-month political stalemate, the tribunal is likely to aggravate wounds that have hardly healed.

There is also opposition to the tribunal's existence with some observers saying they think it could lead to conflicts in the streets similar to the ones witnessed during May 2008, when 82 people were killed.

The opposition has long claimed that the tribunal constitutes an unacceptable violation of Lebanese sovereignty and that it can be politicized to serve as a tool against Syria, their main ally.

"The tribunal into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri should not be considered a tool for taking revenge or intimidation," opposition deputy Anwar al-Khalil said.

In comments made last week to the Lebanese media, Bellemare tried to assure all factions involved that the tribunal would not be a "political exercise" but "a legal process driven by legal rules."

Previous UN reports, including one written by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, have implicated the Syrian intelligence establishment in the killing.

Assad has long denied any involvement in Hariri's killing and has said Syria will not allow its citizens to appear before the tribunal. sms/dpa/afp/rtrs

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