Int’l court: Hezbollah member guilty in Lebanon ex-PM death

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FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2014 file photo, shows an exterior view of the Special Tribunal for the assassination of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Leidschendam, Netherlands. More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2020, in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing. (AP Photo/Toussaint Kluiters, Pool, File)

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — A U.N.-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, which sent shock waves through the Mideast.

None of the suspects were ever arrested and were not in court to hear the verdicts.

The tribunal’s judges also said there was no evidence the leadership of the Hezbollah militant group and Syria were involved in the attack, despite saying the assassination happened as Harairi and his political allies were discussing calling for an “immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon,” Presiding Judge David Re said.

When launched in the wake of the attack, the tribunal raised hopes that for the first time in multiple instances of political violence in Lebanon, the truth of what happened would emerge and those responsible would be held to account.

But for many in Lebanon, the tribunal failed on both counts. Many of the suspects, including the man convicted Tuesday, are either dead or out of reach of justice. And the prosecution was unable to present a cohesive picture of the bombing plot or who ordered it.

The verdicts come at a particularly sensitive time for Lebanon, following the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut two weeks ago, and as many in Lebanon are calling for an international investigation into that explosion.

But it was doubtful the verdict, coming 15 years following the assassination and with no defendants in court, would bring closure to those who had been waiting for justice.

Hariri’s son, Saad, himself a former Lebanese premier, said outside the court that the family accepts the verdicts. “The court has ruled,” he said. Now, he said, the family awaits the implementation of justice.

“The time when political crimes in Lebanon used to go unpunished are gone,” he told journalists outside the court building.

A hearing will be held at a later date to determine Ayyash’s sentence. As the U.N.-backed court has no death sentence, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Hariri supporters in the Beirut district of Tareeq al-Jadideh, however, expressed anger and disappointment at the verdicts.

“If a police station in Tareeq al-Jadideh had investigated this crime, it would be a better result,” one man, driving away on a scooter, told a local television station.

Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Re 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.”

The court had not been 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.

The scale of the investigation and trial was apparent from the size of the written judgment. Re said it ran 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 assassination, while Hezbollah is a Shiite 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.

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.”

It was the lack of clear evidence from phone records tying them to the bombing plot and efforts to set up a false claim of responsibility that led to the acquittals of three suspects — Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi. The judges ordered the arrest warrants for the three men to be withdrawn.

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.

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.

Saad Hariri sounded satisfied after attending the day-long delivery of the judgment as one of four victims present in the courtroom for the hearing.

“Because of the International Tribunal and for the first time in the history of assassinations … we have known the truth,” he said.

“Everybody’s expectation was much higher than what came out but I believe that the tribunal came out with a result that is satisfying,” Hariri said in English. He added that this is a proof that the tribunal is not politicized.

Hariri added that now it is the time for Hezbollah to make sacrifices because those who carried out the assassination are members of the group.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Golf Pass