UN tribunal convicts 1 Hezbollah member, clears 3 in killing of ex-Lebanon PM

Special Tribunal for Lebanon finds Asalim Ayyash guilty in 2005 suicide bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, but says no evidence terror group’s leadership involved

A Lebanese man walks by a giant poster of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that was put up near his grave, in preparation to mark the 10th anniversary of his assassination, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A Lebanese man walks by a giant poster of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that was put up near his grave, in preparation to mark the 10th anniversary of his assassination, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — A UN-backed tribunal has ruled that a member of the Hezbollah terrorist group is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon said Salim Ayyash was guilty of involvement in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and injured 226 people in a huge blast outside a seaside hotel in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

However after a years-long investigation and trial, three other Hezbollah members — Assad Sabra; Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa; and Hassan Habib Merhi — were acquitted of all charges that they also were involved in the murder of Hariri that sent shock waves through the Mideast.

The Special Tribunal for the assassination of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Leidschendam, Netherlands, January 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Toussaint Kluiters, Pool, File)

The rulings came after judges at the tribunal said earlier Tuesday that there was no evidence the leadership of Hezbollah or Syria were involved in the assassination.

Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Presiding Judge David Re said that in the months before his death, Hariri supported reducing the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Presiding Judge David Re attends a session of the United Nations-backed Lebanon Tribunal to hand down its judgement in the case of four Hezbollah members being tried for the bombing that killed former Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others people, in Leidschendam, Netherlands, August 18, 2020. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Pool via AP)

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 did rule on either Hezbollah or Syria, but rather just on the four named Hezbollah suspects, as the tribunal can only accuse individuals — not groups or states. But, even with the rulings against the suspects, 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 August 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.

Re started the hearing with a minute’s silence to honor victims of the blast and their families, as well as those made homeless by the port blast.

The guilty verdict could compound tensions in the tiny country. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his February 14, 2005, assassination, while Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group backed and funded by Tehran.

Then Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Rafik Hariri leaves the Parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon April 17, 2003. (AP Photo)

The trial centered on the alleged roles of the 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.

Without the phone data there would be no case against the four suspects, Re said, as he began explaining the complex investigation into the telecom networks prosecutors say the suspects used.

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.”

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.

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

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.

Vehicles burn following a bomb attack that targeted the motorcade of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, killing him and 22 others in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, February 14, 2005. (AP Photo/File)

Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.

Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former prime minister, attended the day-long delivery of the judgment and was one of four victims present in the courtroom for the hearing.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week insisted on the innocence of the suspects regardless of the verdicts. “For us it will be as if they were never issued,” he said of the verdicts.

Abed Itani, a supporter of the Hariri family in the Beirut neighborhood of Tareeq al-Jadideh, said: “We have been waiting for the truth for 15 years and God willing today the truth will be made public. All what we want from the world and the Lebanese state is for those who carried out this explosion to be punished in accordance with justice.”

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