A Martyr's Son Calls for Justice

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Ramzi Haidar / AFP / Getty

Lebanese Parliamentary leader Saad Hariri.

On the eve of the second anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, his son and political heir bluntly warns that a failure to establish an international tribunal to try his father's killers will grant the Syrian regime a "license to kill" in Lebanon and dash any hopes of democracy spreading in the Middle East. "There is a country and a regime that has been pounding at Lebanon with assassinations and explosions after explosions and killings after killings, which have been going on for over 30 years," Saad Hariri told TIME in an exclusive interview in his heavily guarded home in Beirut. "It is important to punish those who commit these crimes, for them to understand they don't have a license to kill. And if this tribunal doesn't happen, then the international community will have given a license to kill to the regime of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and to Bashar al-Assad himself."

Hariri was speaking hours after two remote-controlled bombs, filled with steel pellets, exploded minutes apart in two buses near the Christian town of Bikfaya in the Lebanese mountains 20 miles north of Beirut. The blasts killed three people and wounded over 20, heightening tensions a day before hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are expected to converge on downtown Beirut to commemorate Rafik Hariri's murder two years ago. Hariri condemned the explosions as an "act of terrorism" that aimed to "fill the hearts of people with fear." "I can't tell you that they [the perpetrators] haven't succeeded. People are worried," he said.

The grim political situation in Lebanon today stands in marked contrast to the heady optimism, two years ago, of the so-called Cedar Revolution, the month-long series of street demonstrations triggered by the killing of Rafik Hariri and 22 other people in a massive Valentine's Day truck bomb explosion, which tore through Beirut's plush seafront hotel district. Hariri had been on the verge of leading an electoral campaign aimed at ending the dominance of Lebanese politics by neighboring Syria, a goal that many Lebanese believe cost him his life. "The Syrian regime killed my father," said Saad Hariri. "Bashar al-Assad gave the order to his goons and they executed the order." He added, "My father's murder was meant to cripple Lebanon and put fear into the Lebanese people."

The ensuing popular demonstrations — the so-called Cedar Revolution — put Syria to rout, at least temporarily. The war between Hizballah and Israel last year, however, did huge physical damage to Lebanon. And emboldened by a strengthened alliance with Tehran, Damascus and its Lebanese allies began to fight back, accusing the government of being a tool of the West and attacking what it saw as unwarranted interference by the U.S. in Lebanese affairs. Last November six ministers, including all five Shi'a, resigned from the government, shortly before a cabinet vote to adopt a U.N. draft resolution on creating an international tribunal to try those accused of murdering Rafik Hariri. Preliminary findings of a U.N. investigation into the assassination have indicated the involvement of senior officials in the Syrian regime. Since early December, the Hizballah-led opposition has mounted a campaign of street rallies, sit-ins and a general strike to topple the government.

Hariri, the head of the parliamentary majority, believes that the opposition bid is intended to wreck the international tribunal and to save the Syrian regime. "The tribunal is the only protection for Lebanon, not just for politicians but for all Lebanese," Hariri said. "If there is no hope for the international tribunal, then there is no hope for democracy in Lebanon and if there's no hope for democracy in Lebanon, then there's no hope for democracy in the region and no hope for anyone."

Hariri was running the family's business empire in Saudi Arabia when his father's murder propelled the soft-spoken then-35-year-old second son into the unforgiving limelight of Lebanese politics. As political heir to his father, he has had to endure a crash course in Lebanese politics while staying one step ahead of the assassins that continue to prowl this country. Four leading politicians and journalists have been killed in the two years since his father's death, the last being Pierre Gemayel, the industry minister, who was gunned down in his car last November.

Apart from attending the memorial beside his father's tomb in downtown Beirut Wednesday, Hariri will be confined to his massive fortified home, forced to stay there by security concerns. "I live between the second and fourth floors of this building," he said with a regretful look. "It has been a difficult two years. It's been difficult because for me my father was also my friend, and tomorrow is the day where I will be remembering the good moments I had with my father, remembering his beliefs, his teachings, his smile, his love and his care." Does he still miss him? "A lot," Hariri said with a sad smile.