By Stephanie van den Berg
THE HAGUE (Reuters) -A U.N. tribunal set up to prosecute those behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has run out of funding amid Lebanon's economic and political crisis, threatening plans for future trials, people involved in the process said.
Closing the tribunal would dash the hopes of families of victims in the Hariri murder and other attacks, but also those demanding that a U.N. tribunal bring to justice those responsible for the Beirut port blast last August that killed 200 and injured 6,500.
Last year the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon, located outside of The Hague, convicted former Hezbollah member Salim Jamil Ayyash for the bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others.
Ayyash was sentenced in absentia to five life terms in prison, while three alleged accomplices were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.. Both sides have appealed.
The court had been scheduled to start a second trial on June 16 against Ayyash, who is accused of another assassination and attacks against Lebanese politicians in 2004 and 2005 in the run-up to the Hariri bombing.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday said he was aware of the court's financial problems.
"The Secretary-General continues to urge member states and the international community for voluntary contributions in order to secure the funds required to support the independent judicial proceedings that remain before the tribunal," U.N. Deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
The funding shortfall comes as Lebanon faces its worst turmoil since Hariri’s assassination. The country is deeply polarized between supporters of Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and its allies and supporters of Hariri’s son, prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri, who declined to comment.
FINANCES "VERY CONCERNING"
"If you abort the tribunal, if you abort this case, you are giving a free gift to the perpetrators and to those who do not want justice to take place," Nidal Jurdi, a lawyer for the victims in the second case, told Reuters.
Scrapping a new trial would not only harm victims who waited 17 years for the case to come to court, but would undermine accountability for crimes in Lebanon in general, Jurdi said, adding that a letter had been sent to the U.N. expressing concern.
It would be "a disappointment for the victims of the connected cases and the victims of Lebanon", he said, appealing for international funding.
"Lebanon needs full accountability," he said.
Created by a 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution and opened in 2009, the tribunal's budget last year was 55 million euros ($67 million) with Lebanon footing 49% of the bill and foreign donors and the U.N. members making up the rest.
"The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is in a very concerning financial position," court spokeswoman Wajed Ramadan told Reuters. "No decision has yet been taken on judicial proceedings and there are intense fundraising efforts going on to find a solution," she added.
The U.N. extended the mandate of the tribunal from March 1, 2021, for two years or sooner if the remaining cases were completed or funding ran out.
Guterres warned in February that due to the financial crisis in Lebanon, the government’s contribution was uncertain and warned the court may not be able to continue its work after the first quarter of 2021.
The 2021 budget had been trimmed by nearly 40 percent, forcing job cuts at the court, but the Lebanese government has still been unable to pay its share, according to U.N. documents.
Guterres requested an appropriation of about $25 million from the U.N. General Assembly for 2021. The General Assembly approved $15.5 million in March.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Nick Macfie)