Four Hezbollah members were charged on Thursday in The Hague with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others in a truck bomb attack nearly nine years ago.
Prosecutor Norman Farrell told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that the evidence in the case included large amounts of data from mobile phones allegedly used by the Hezbollah suspects to plan and execute the bombing, which turned a street of Beirut “into a man-made hell.”
“The prosecutor intends to call hundreds of witnesses in this trial and to present thousands of exhibits,” presiding judge David Re told the court.
“The evidence, including a considerable amount of telecoms data, leaves marks behind concerning the true identities of the perpetrators,” said prosecutor Norman Farrell.
Infographic: Assassination of Hariri
A large scale model of the bombing scene stood in the middle of the courtroom which included a mock-up of the St. George Hotel, in front of which a Mitsubishi van laden with up to 3000kg of high explosives detonated, leaving a massive crater.
“The attackers used an extraordinary amount of high explosives, far more than necessary,” Farrell said.
“It is not that the perpetrators did not care if they killed their fellow citizens. They intended to do so.”
Hezbollah denies any involvement. It claims the United States and Israel are behind the assassination.
With hundreds of witness statements and a mass of evidence to be presented, the proceedings may take years.
Two of the four defendants due on trial over the killing of Hariri are believed to be in Iran, while the other two suspects are possible victims of “preventative liquidation,” German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Tuesday.
The first hearing of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has been eagerly anticipated by many, not least the Lebanese March 14 coalition that has lobbied for the creation of the tribunal. But the likelihood of the hearing’s having a significant impact on Lebanese political dynamics is low.
The hearing has been overshadowed by three issues: the political vacuum resulting from the absence of a cabinet since March 2013; heightened security concerns; and the build up to the Geneva II conference scheduled for Jan. 22
While the assassination of Hariri and others has been universally condemned, the STL remains an issue of tremendous controversy in Lebanon, disagreed upon by opposing political factions.
“The courts will be highly politicized since they are indicting members of Hezbollah,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “Lebanon is split between those who support the indictment and see Hezbollah as a clear suspect and those who see the court with suspicion and as an attempt to undermine Hezbollah’s resistance role.”
infographic: Special Tribunal for Lebanon
Hariri trial:Meet the judges, prosecutors, accused
Hariri's son, Saad - also a former prime minister like his late father – attended the start of the trial along with the family members of other victims of the Feb. 14, 2005 blast.
“Our presence here today is in itself a proof that our stance, since the first moment, and every moment, was and will continue to be seeking justice, not revenge, punishment and not vengeance,” he told reporters outside court, saying it was “the time of justice for Lebanon.”
Hariri and his comrades were killed on Feb. 14 2005 when a suicide bomber detonated a van laden with explosives in Beirut leaving a 30-foot crater in the ground.
Hariri was on good spirits that fateful Monday morning, describes journalist Nick Blanford in his well-researched account of events leading up to the assassination of Hariri in his book ‘Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Raﬁk Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East.’
While Hariri’s advisory team were discussing politics, his heavy security team was doing one of their three daily bomb sweeps of Hariri’s residence, using sniffer dogs trained to detect the slightest hint of explosives. The area was clean.
Nine years after his death, Hariri remains a symbol of unity for many Lebanese, portrayed by many as a compromiser capable of navigating around the mines of Lebanon’s wavering political landscape.