UN-backed court: One defendant out of four guilty in 2005 murder of ex-Lebanon PM

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A special UN-backed tribunal looking into the 2005 truck bombing assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Tuesday found only one of the four defendants guilty.

At a hearing that opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the August 4 port explosion that devastated Beirut, and in the presence of family members of those killed in the truck bombing that assassinated Hariri – including his son, Saad Hariri, who also served as Prime Minister before resigning last October – judges from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon read out the long-awaited verdict after a recap of the evidence by trial chamber judges.

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Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra were charged in absentia with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Ayyash, the convicted lead defendant, was also charged with committing a terrorist attack by means of an explosive device, intentional homicide of Rafik Hariri and the 21 other victims, and attempted intentional homicide of 226 additional people.

The other three defendants were charged with being accomplices in these acts.

A fifth accused, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, who was a top Hezbollah commander, died in 2016 and was subsequently removed from the case.

The tribunal found Tuesday that there was enough evidence to convict Ayyash in absentia of the all the charges against him.

The tribunal found that Ayyash, the chief defendant, had been the user of a cell phone identified by prosecutors as critical in the attack – part of a “red network” of mobile users that appeared based on its movements to be the core team involved in carrying out the attack.

The tribunal was "satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt" that the evidence showed that Ayyash used the phone, Judge Micheline Braidy said, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict. While the defense had asserted that Ayyash was outside Lebanon in Saudi Arabia on a hajj pilgrimage at the time of the attack, the tribunal found that in fact, he had postponed the trip and remained in Lebanon.

But the tribunal found that the circumstantial evidence connecting the other three defendants to the attack was not strong enough to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Prosecutors alleged that Hariri’s movements were tracked for months before his assassination by a network of co-conspirators using color-coded mobile phones.

The case against the defendants relied heavily on telecommunications evidence showing how the movement of the specific mobile phones tracked Hariri’s movements and additional evidence connecting the mobile phones in question to the defendants, including colocation with their personal phones.

The tribunal noted that people who took part in some of the preparations for the attack, including those who were surveilling Hariri, did not necessarily know that they were preparing for an assassination attempt or for a suicide bombing.

The judges noted that Ayyash had an affiliation with Hezbollah and that the accused were all supporters of the group, but the verdict also stopped short of directly pointing to responsibility by Hezbollah in the attack.

While noting that Hariri’s killing was “undoubtedly a political act” and that “the growing opposition to Syrian presence in Lebanon (by Hariri’s allies) threatened Syria’s interests,” Judge David Re added that while “the trial chamber is of the view Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and some of his political allies; however there was no evidence that Hezbollah leadership had an involvement in Mr. Hariri's murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it."

But Judge Janet Nosworthy said that those responsible for the bombing “must have known that numerous people would have been killed or injured regardless of whether or not it succeeded in killing Mr. Hariri” and evidence shows it was “designed to destabilize Lebanon generally.”

The tribunal also addressed the case of Ahmad Abu Adas, a Palestinian man who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the attack and who has since never been found. Prosecutors had claimed that Merhi, Oneissi, and Sabra had targeted Abu Adas before the attack to find someone who would make a false claim of responsibility.

The judges found that while Abu Adas was not the suicide bomber and the video appeared to be a false claim, the prosecution had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the three defendants had been part of the making of the video or that they were involved in Abu Adas’ disappearance.

The mood in Beirut was anxious leading up to the reading of the verdict, with many anticipating clashes between Hariri supporters and Hezbollah supporters. The verdict had originally been scheduled for August 7 but was postponed in light of the Beirut port explosion.

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Justice after 15 years

For 15 years, debate has swirled over who was responsible for the assassination, with many fingers pointing at Syria or Hezbollah.

Hariri served as prime minister of Lebanon five times following the 1975-90 civil war. A multi-billionaire who made his fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia, he was the dominant Sunni Muslim politician in Lebanon’s sectarian system.

He was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after visiting the Parliament building and neabry Café de l’Etoile. As his motorcade passed along the seafront corniche near the St. George hotel, a truck bomb tore through his vehicle, leaving a massive crater and ripping the facades of the surrounding buildings.

The other victims killed included Hariri’s bodyguards, pedestrians, and the former economy minister Bassil Fleihan.
By June 2005, an international investigation was underway headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, and by October it had issued a report implicating high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials. Syria always denied any involvement.

In August, four Lebanese generals who were pillars of the Syrian-dominated order were arrested at the request of Mehlis. They were released nearly four years later without charge after the tribunal said there was not sufficient evidence to indict them. They always denied any role.

Hariri and Syria

In the year before his assassination, Hariri had been embroiled in a row over the extension of the term of pro-Syria President Emile Lahoud. Under Syrian pressure, the constitution was amended to allow the three-year extension. Hariri had opposed the move but eventually signed the amendment.

While Hariri is credited with much of Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction, he resigned in 2004 as a UN Security Council resolution put pressure on Syria over its role in Lebanon.

The resolution called for a free and fair presidential election, the withdrawal of all foreign forces, and for the disbandment of armed groups in the country, which included the pro-Damascus Hezbollah.

His assassination ignited the “Cedar Revolution,” mass protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Under growing international pressure, Syria withdrew its troops in April 2005.

What unfolded after would reshape Lebanon for the next decade and a half until new popular protests would break out in October 2019 that called for an end to the sectarian system.

Hariri’s son Saad, who would become prime minister and step down last October, led a coalition of anti-Syrian parties known as March 14, which was backed by Western states and Saudi Arabia. Syria’s Lebanese allies, including the Shia Hezbollah, gathered into a rival alliance called March 8. A sectarian divide emerged between Sunnis and Shia.

Lebanon’s two main Christian Maronite leaders, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, both returned to political life: Aoun returned from exile and Geagea was released from jail.

The March 14 alliance won a parliamentary majority in June.

Several years of political conflict ensued between March 14 and March 8, much of it focused on the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. The tribunal into the Hariri killing was also a point of conflict.

The tension culminated in a brief eruption of civil conflict in 2008 during which Hezbollah took over Beirut.

Blame shifts to Hezbollah

The German prosecutor Mehlis was replaced in 2006, and several personnel resigned. Saad Hariri, who had blamed Syria retracted his accusation in 2010, and in 2011 the tribunal named four Hezbollah members wanted over the killing, none of which have been detained by Lebanese authorities. Hezbollah has said they will not be.

The indictment said they were linked to the attack largely by circumstantial evidence gleaned from phone records. A fifth member of Hezbollah was indicted in 2012.

Hezbollah dismissed the indictment, saying it contained no proof of what it said were fabricated accusations. One of the original four suspects, senior Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in Syria in 2016.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has accused the tribunal of trying to undermine his group and has said it is a tool of its enemies in the United States and Israel.

-With Reuters

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