Four Hezbollah members go on trial in absentia this week at a U.N.-backed tribunal for the 2005 killing of Lebanese former premier Rafiq Hariri in a case increasingly overshadowed by sectarian bloodshed at home.
Nine years after a massive Beirut car bombing killed billionaire Hariri, leading to the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and three years into Syria’s own bloody civil war, prosecutors are finally to open their case on Thursday in a suburb of The Hague.
The seafront bombing killed 22 people besides Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the U.N. Security Council of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2007.
Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of Syrian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah.
A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.
The STL is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of a terrorist attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his indictment that Badreddine and Ayyash “kept Hariri under surveillance” before the Valentine’s Day suicide bombing, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly issued a false claim of responsibility to mislead investigators.
Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister until his resignation in Oct. 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of 2.5 tons of TNT as his armored convoy passed.
A video was then delivered to the Beirut office of pan-Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in which a man “falsely claimed to be a suicide bomber on behalf of a fictional fundamentalist group called ‘Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria’,” prosecutors said.
They will aim to prove the four men’s involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
The STL initially sparked fierce debate in Lebanon, sharply divided into the camp led by Hezbollah and its rivals in the March 14 movement, set up in the wake of Hariri’s assassination and led by his son Saad, also a former prime minister, who may attend the trial’s opening.
His movement is united by its opposition to larger neighbour Syria, which was forced to end an almost 30-year occupation of Lebanon in the wake of the bombing.
The powerful Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy, vowing that none of the suspects will be arrested.
Hezbollah brought down a Western-backed Lebanese government led by Saad Hariri in Jan. 2011 because of its support for the tribunal.
“We have always said that the STL has been set up illegally in the first place,” Badreddine’s court-appointed lawyer Antoine Korkmaz told AFP.
“The [U.N.] Security Council has been manipulated for political reasons,” he said ahead of the trial.
Hariri’s assassination was “not an act of terrorism, it was a political attack,” Korkmaz said.
Sectarian tensions have soared in Lebanon since Hezbollah openly intervened in the conflict in neighbouring Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces last year.
Syria and Hezbollah were blamed for the December 27 assassination of former finance minister Mohamed Chatah, an aide to Saad Hariri, in another downtown Beirut bombing.
Chatah was the ninth high-profile critic of the Syrian regime to be killed in Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination, and his death served to remind many Lebanese that no one has been held accountable for those killings.
A string of attacks linked to the Syrian conflict have strained Lebanon’s fragile multi-sectarian political system.
“Unfortunately Hariri’s assassination has been overtaken by other events in the region,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at Beirut’s American University.
“The main concern for people is no longer Hariri’s tribunal, but whether or not there will be an explosion today or tomorrow,” he told AFP.SHOW MORE