BEIRUT – The public gallery at a court in the Netherlands was as deserted as the defendant's dock on a recent day at the trial of five Hezbollah suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the Middle East.
The massive explosion that tore through his convoy on the Beirut seaside 10 years ago sent a tremor across the region and unleashed a popular uprising that briefly united the Lebanese and ejected Syrian troops from the country. But a decade later, and despite millions of dollars spent, justice remains elusive in a case that has been overshadowed by more recent turmoil.
"The tribunal harks back to another era, and the latest developments have regrettably overtaken it," said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
And yet despite its failings, the tribunal is still widely seen as a small but necessary step toward ending a culture of impunity in an increasingly violent region.
The Feb. 14, 2005 assassination of Hariri, referred to by some as Lebanon's Sept. 11, killed the former premier and 22 others, and wounded more than 200 people, stunning a nation long used to violence and political assassinations. Hariri, a charismatic billionaire businessman, was the most prominent Sunni politician in Lebanon. Although a divisive figure, he was credited with rebuilding downtown Beirut from the ravages of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Anti-Syrian groups, then in the opposition, blamed the Syrian government for Hariri's assassination, a charge denied by Damascus. Crowds of Lebanese flooded Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut in scenes that, in retrospect, resemble the Arab Spring uprisings that broke out six years later.
Syria, which kept about 15,000 troops in Lebanon, was forced to withdraw under pressure, ending the 30-year military domination of its smaller neighbor.
But Hariri's killing and the subsequent investigation, which focused on Syria and its powerful Shiite Lebanese ally Hezbollah, sharpened the country's sectarian divisions and heightened other intractable debates, including over the role of Hezbollah and its vast arsenal, which opponents want dismantled.
The country today is beset by a militant threat to its border and frequent violence that spills over from neighboring Syria's civil war. Hariri's son, Saad, who assumed his father's political mantle, resides in Paris and Saudi Arabia, worried he would also be killed if he returned to Lebanon.
Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has cast the assassination and tribunal as an Israeli plot, has warned he would "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest the five Hezbollah suspects, saying the tribunal will never get its hands on them, not "even in 300 years."
A U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up in the Dutch town of Leidschendam, started the trial of the five suspects in absentia in January 2014. Many Lebanese politicians and witnesses have traveled to the Netherlands-based court to give their testimonies over the past year.
Marwan Hamadeh, a leading Lebanese legislator and former Cabinet minister who was close to Hariri, is one of them. He himself was severely wounded in an assassination attempt four months before Hariri was killed. He believes the Syrian government was behind the killing.
"We never sought revenge," he told The Associated Press in his office in downtown Beirut. "But by revealing who executed the crime, we are also gradually uncovering those who incited and took the decision for the crime," he said.
Hamadeh said he expected verdicts to be issued within a year, without the killers in the courtroom.
Banners hung along on the streets of Beirut in honor of the 10th anniversary show the late Hariri with the Arabic words: "Ten, one hundred, one thousand years: We will continue."
In the court last Wednesday, the public gallery — dozens of light gray chairs separated from the courtroom below by a wall of glass — was empty apart from one reporter and two security guards.
In the courtroom itself, just over 20 people — judges, lawyers, court staff and security guards — listened as prosecution lawyers read out brief written statements of witnesses whose identities were used to buy mobile phones allegedly used in the bombing. Once prosecutors are done laying out their evidence, lawyers for the defendants will have their turn.
Lebanese politicians allied with Hezbollah say the tribunal has no value and some have even demanded that Lebanon stop paying its share of 49 percent of the tribunal's budget, adding that oil-rich Gulf states should pay instead. The late Hariri was a dual Lebanese and Saudi citizen.
Wiam Wahhab, a politician allied with Hezbollah, said the tribunal has done "nothing that gives it credibility."
In a televised interview, he added that the tribunal "will not be able to even touch the nail of any members of the resistance," referring to Hezbollah members.
Court spokeswoman Marianne El Hajj said the tribunal is delivering justice, even without the defendants in court, and said she hopes it will have a positive impact across the Middle East and North Africa.
"The region is changing and its people are demanding justice and accountability," she said.
A Western diplomat based in the Middle East said the tribunal "is showing that there is no place for impunity, although it's hard to see anybody going to jail."
"It has a symbolic value," the diplomat said.
Corder reported from Leidschendam, Netherlands.