A UN-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted one member of the Hezbollah militant group and acquitted three others of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon said Salim Ayyash was guilty as a co-conspirator of five charges linked to his involvement in the suicide truck bombing. Hariri and 21 others were killed and 226 were wounded in a huge blast outside a seaside hotel in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
However, after a years-long investigation and trial, three other Hezbollah members were acquitted of all charges that they also were involved in the killing of Hariri that sent shock waves through the Middle East.
The tribunal’s judges also said there was no evidence the leadership of the Hezbollah militant group and Syria were involved in the attack.
Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Presiding Judge David Re of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said that in the months before his death, Hariri was a supporter of reducing the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
He said judges who studied reams of evidence in the trial of four Hezbollah members accused of involvement in the bombing were “of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies.”
But he added that there was no evidence that the “Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it.”
Re was speaking as he delivered the final judgments in the trial. The court was not expected to rule on either Hezbollah or Syria — but on the four named Hezbollah suspects — as the tribunal can only accuse individuals, not groups or states. But the fact the tribunal appeared to explicitly and categorically rule out evidence tying Hezbollah’s leadership to the crime was good news for the Iran-backed group, which dominates Lebanese politics and has come under increased scrutiny and pressure at home.
The verdicts were delayed by nearly two weeks as a mark of respect for victims of another devastating explosion — the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port. The Aug. 4 blast killed around 180 people, injured more than 6,000, left a quarter of a million with homes unfit to live in and plunged a nation already reeling from economic and social malaise even deeper into crisis.
Re started the hearing with a minute’s silence to start the hearing to honor victims of the blast and their families as well as those made homeless by the port blast.
He was reading a summary of the written judgment that runs to more than 2,600 pages with some 13,000 footnotes.
The guilty verdict could compound tensions in the tiny country. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his Feb. 14, 2005, assassination, while Hezbollah is a shia Muslim group backed and funded by Tehran.
The trial centered on the alleged roles of four Hezbollah members in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and wounded 226 people. Prosecutors based their case largely on data from mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute the bombing.
Without the phone data there would be no case against the four suspects, Re said, as he began explaining the complex investigation into the telecom networks prosecutors say the suspects used.
Re said that the telecom evidence in the case was “almost entirely circumstantial.”
However, another judge, Janet Nosworthy, later said that judges had ruled that four different networks of mobile phones “were interconnected and coordinated with each other, and operated as covert networks at the relevant times.”
During the trial, which started in 2014 and spanned 415 days of hearings, the tribunal in Leidschendam, near The Hague, heard evidence from 297 witnesses.
Initially, five suspects were tried, all of them Hezbollah members. Charges against one of the group’s top military commanders, Mustafa Badreddine, were dropped after he was killed in Syria in 2016. The court said Tuesday it could not prove that Badreddine was the mastermind behind the assassination.
The remaining suspects were Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi. They were charged with offenses including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
A hearing will be held at a later date to determine Ayyash’s sentence. As the UN-backed court has no death sentence, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
Ayyash is not likely to serve time as Hezbollah had vowed not to hand over any suspects. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can appeal the verdicts.
The assassination was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria, a charge Damascus denies and which the judges now say was not borne out by evidence in the trial.
Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.
Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former prime minister, is attending the day-long delivery of the judgment and was one of four victims present in the courtroom for the hearing.
On Tuesday morning, the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya prepped viewers for the verdict, showing a slick 3-D reenactment of the bombing.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week insisted on the innocence of the suspects regardless of the verdicts. “For us it will be as if they were never issued,” he said of the verdicts.
Abed Itani, a supporter of the Hariri family in the Beirut neighborhood of Tareeq al-Jadideh, said: “We have been waiting for the truth for 15 years and God willing today the truth will be made public. All what we want from the world and the Lebanese state is for those who carried out this explosion to be punished in accordance with justice.”
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