A United Nations-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiracy to kill former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in a 2005 bombing that set the stage for years of confrontation between Lebanon’s rival political forces.
There was insufficient evidence against three other men charged as accomplices in the bombing and they were acquitted by the tribunal, located in the Netherlands.
“The trial chamber is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the prosecution has proved the guilt of Salim Jamil Ayyash on all counts charged,” said presiding Judge David Re.
“Mr. Ayyash had a central role in the execution of the attack and directly contributed to it. Mr. Ayyash intended to kill Mr. Hariri and had the required knowledge about the circumstances of the assassination mission, including that explosives were the means to be used.”
Prosecutors also established that Ayyash had an affiliation with Hezbollah, the tribunal found in its 2,600-page ruling.
The three other defendants — Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi — are also alleged members of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia Muslim group. All of the men were being tried in absentia.
Judges said they had however found no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part in the attack that left 21 others dead. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing.
“The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and his political allies, however, there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement,” Re said earlier.
The verdict comes as the Lebanese people are still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 178 people this month and from a devastating economic meltdown.
“I’m very disappointed, like many Lebanese,” said 36-year old Lebanese-born Ahmad Sayed, who drove from Bielefeld in neighbouring Germany to witness the decision.
“Fifteen years we waited for this verdict and it was very weak. We don’t like this decision,” he said.
Canada and Britain were among the countries that praised the process after the verdicts were delivered.
“We acknowledge that this verdict may not bring the closure desired by many in Lebanon,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.
“However, today’s verdict upholds the principle of accountability and serves as a small but significant step forward in the continued pursuit for democracy, justice and security in Lebanon. Canada will continue to strongly support the Lebanese people in these efforts, particularly in the face of existing challenges, which have been greatly amplified by the devastating explosions of Aug. 4 in Beirut.”
Israel, which has warred with Hezbollah over the years, had a harsher assessment, characterizing the tribunal’s ruling as “unequivocal.”
“The Hezbollah terrorist group and its personnel were involved in the murder and in obstructing the investigation,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement.
Demand to Syria preceded bombing
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire, had close ties with the United States, Western and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.
Hariri endorsed a call for Syria to end its then-occupation of Lebanon. The judges said it was “very likely” that the decision to kill him was only made after a Feb. 2, 2005, political meeting at which participants had agreed to call for the “immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.”
Hariri’s assassination plunged Lebanon into what was then its worst crisis since the war, setting the stage for years of confrontation between rival political forces.
Hariri’s son, Saad, like his slain father a former Lebanese prime minister, said his family accepts the verdicts and that it was time for the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement to assume responsibility.
“Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today,” he said. “I repeat: We will not rest until punishment is served.”
Even before judges began reading their verdict into Hariri’s killing, Lebanon’s an-Nahar daily newspaper ran a headline: “International Justice Defeats Intimidation.”
The paper published a caricature of Hariri’s face looking at a mushroom cloud over the devastated city, with a caption: “May you also [get justice],” referring to an investigation that could unveil the cause of the blast.
Christian President Michel Aoun and Shia parliament speaker Nabih Berri, both political allies of Hezbollah, called for unity after the verdict.
Hezbollah disinterest in proceedings
Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and the pro-Damascus Al Mayadeen channel did not cover the trial, which other broadcasters in Lebanon were airing live.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday he was not concerned with the trial and that if any members of the group were convicted, it would stand by their innocence.
Beirut tour guide Nada Nammour, 54, speaking before the reading of the verdict began, said the 2005 bombing was a crime that should be punished. “Lebanon needs to see law and justice.”
The judgment had initially been expected earlier this month, but was delayed after the port explosion.
The investigation and trial of the four Hezbollah members has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion US. It could result in a guilty verdict and later sentencing of up to life imprisonment, or acquittal.
DNA evidence showed that the blast that killed Hariri was carried out by a male suicide bomber who was never identified.
Prosecutors used cellphone records to argue the men on trial carefully monitored Hariri’s movements in the months leading up to the attack to time it and to put forward a fake claim of responsibility as a diversion.
Court-appointed lawyers said there is no physical evidence linking the four to the crime and they should be acquitted.