* Little trust in tribunal
* Tribunal has yet to file any indictments
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, Aug 19 (Reuters) - The U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, inspires scant faith among Lebanese.
Nearly 18 months after it began to function, the court has yet to file indictments for the huge bombing on Feb. 14, 2005 in which Hariri and 22 others died. It has no suspects in custody.
Instead of delivering truth, justice and an end to a culture of impunity prevailing since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the tribunal — and the U.N. investigation that preceded it — has so far failed to dispel the doubts of its detractors. Even its supporters can barely conceal their disquiet.
Perceptions are rife here that the hybrid court, which has Lebanese as well as international judges, is somehow a pawn in murky tussles for influence involving Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and others.
"This isn’t an isolated legal process. It’s a heavily political process," said Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri.
The court denies being swayed by politics, saying it works in line with the highest international judicial standards. "Its proceedings are driven by these rules and the burden of proof, not by outside influence," said spokeswoman Fatima Issawi.
Obviously, the tribunal could best assert its credibility by producing compelling evidence to identify and convict Hariri’s assassins. It may yet do so, but few Lebanese would bet on a "smoking gun" emerging from a mishap-prone investigation which at first relied on witnesses who later recanted their testimony. Chances that the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, would soon file indictments dimmed this week when he received evidence from Hezbollah, via the Lebanese authorities, which the Iranian and Syrian-backed group says points to an Israeli hand in the crime.
Having requested that Hezbollah submit its material, Bellemare will now need time to review it — although few in Lebanon believe an international court would ever have been created had an Israeli track been suspected at the outset.
DISCREDITING THE TRIBUNAL
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, responding to reports that the tribunal planned to indict some of his men, has sought to discredit it by showing on television what he said was intercepted Israeli surveillance film of routes used by Hariri.
He also suggested that Lebanese arrested in recent months as spies for Israel, some of whom worked for telephone firms, could have manipulated cellphone evidence gathered by investigators.
Nasrallah, who leads Lebanon’s strongest armed force, calls the court an "Israeli project" against Hezbollah and its allies. The possibility that even "rogue" Hezbollah members might face charges seemed so explosive that Syrian and Saudi heads of state jointly visited Beirut in July to calm fears of sectarian tension between Nasrallah’s Shi’ite followers and Sunnis loyal to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the slain statesman’s son.
On Wednesday, Hariri welcomed Hezbollah’s submission of its data on the assassination and reaffirmed his own commitment to the tribunal as "the adequate body for achieving justice".
Lebanese views on whether that is indeed the case reflect the rifts between those who see the West as a malign handmaiden of Israel and those whose worst fears focus on Iran and Syria.
"Both sides have grounds not to have faith in the process," said Nadim Shehadi, of Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
"Those who want it to succeed are losing hope because it’s so slow and bureaucratic and costly. Those who don’t want it to succeed have the conspiracy theories," he said, accusing the tribunal’s opponents of being the ones politicising it.
For Omar Nashabe, a journalist with al-Akhbar, a newspaper often sympathetic to Hezbollah, the reverse is true.
"What is cruel is when you pretend this mechanism is for justice, whereas in the back of your brain you are creating a mechanism that serves your political interests," he said, alluding to Western powers that drive the U.N. Security Council.
REVULSION AGAINST SYRIA
The tribunal, with a far narrower mandate than international bodies set up elsewhere to tackle war crimes or genocide, is the child of a moment when Hariri’s killing united much Lebanese, Western and Arab opinion against Syria, forcing it to loosen its 29-year military, security and political grip on Lebanon.
The early reports of U.N. investigators implicated Syria, which denied any involvement and has since largely emerged from diplomatic isolation to regain much of its influence in Lebanon.
Even Hariri, who used to accuse the Syrians of killing his father, has mended his fences with Damascus since becoming prime minister, saying it was up to the tribunal to produce the truth.
Soon after the tribunal began work in March 2009 it freed four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals held for four years without charge, saying it did not have enough evidence to indict them.
Bellemare has kept largely silent on what he plans next.
"We are at a crunch point now," said Michael Young, a Lebanese analyst who has often criticised the investigation for failing to pursue Syrian leads aggressively enough.
"If Bellemare doesn’t have enough to indict now, it’s very hard to see what magic bullet he will fire off that will enable him to make a formal indictment in the foreseeable future."
Instead, the prosecutor might ask Lebanon to make arrests, Young predicted — a request that Beirut’s unity government, which includes Hezbollah, would find hard to comply with.
"Nasrallah’s gamble is that politics will come to overwhelm the legal side of the investigation," said Young.
Critics of the tribunal, and even some of its supporters, lament the selective nature of its quest, essentially to bring to justice the killers of one politician in a land with a long, bloody history of assassinations, wars and Israeli invasions.
"It was part of a larger political decision to put pressure on Syria and Hezbollah, who are supposed to have been the bad guys in this story," argued Karim Makdisi, who teaches international relations at the American University of Beirut.
"In the Arab region there’s tremendous distrust for the ‘international community’ and what’s been done in Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq," he said.
"You cannot come and parachute something like the tribunal on top and say, well, this has a life of its own and people shouldn’t believe in conspiracy theories." (Editing by Jon Hemming)