On Tuesday, August 18th, the UN-trial for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister resulted in the accusation of a Hezbollah commander for the operation. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Netherlands also said the leadership of the Lebanese group and the Syrian government were not involved in the attack. The verdict had originally been scheduled for August 7th but was postponed in light of the Beirut port explosion.
Hariri was killed in a bombing of his motorcade in Beirut in 2005. The powerful businessman had ties to Saudi Arabia and was a prominent Sunni Muslim politician in the country following the civil war that ended in 1990. Hariri’s ties to the Gulf made him a rival of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Syrian government. Hariri had called for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and the court said the decision to kill him was related to this, according to Reuters. As such, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon shortly after the assassination, in April 2005, following massive protests.
While Hariri is credited with much of Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction, he resigned in 2004 as a UN Security Council resolution put pressure on Syria over its role in Lebanon. The resolution called for a free and fair presidential election, the withdrawal of all foreign forces, and for the disbandment of armed groups in the country, which included the pro-Damascus Hezbollah. His assassination ignited the “Cedar Revolution,” mass protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
Prosecutors alleged that Hariri’s movements were tracked for months before his assassination by a network of co-conspirators using color-coded mobile phones.
The tribunal noted that people who took part in some of the preparations for the attack, including those who were surveilling Hariri, did not necessarily know that they were preparing for an assassination attempt or for a suicide bombing.
Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra were charged in absentia with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
The tribunal found that Ayyash, the chief defendant, had been the user of a cell phone identified by prosecutors as critical in the attack – part of a “red network” of mobile users that appeared based on its movements to be the core team involved in carrying out the attack.
The tribunal was “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt” that the evidence showed that Ayyash used the phone, Judge Micheline Braidy said, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict. While the defense had asserted that Ayyash was outside Lebanon in Saudi Arabia on a hajj pilgrimage at the time of the attack, the tribunal found that in fact, he had postponed the trip and remained in Lebanon. But the tribunal found that the circumstantial evidence connecting the other three defendants to the attack was not strong enough to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The judges noted that Ayyash had an affiliation with Hezbollah and that the accused were all supporters of the group, but the verdict also stopped short of directly pointing to responsibility by Hezbollah in the attack.
Therefore, Salim Jamil Ayyash, the convicted lead defendant, was charged with committing a terrorist attack by means of an explosive device, intentional homicide of Hariri and the 21 other victims, and attempted intentional homicide of 226 additional people. The rest of the defendants were charged with being accomplices in these acts. A fifth accused, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander, died in 2016 and was subsequently removed from the case. Ayyash and the others on trial were not present for the ruling, making it unclear what effect the decision will have.
As a consequence of the tribunal’s decision, his son, former PM Saad Hariri called on Hezbollah to turn in the man held responsible for the assassination.
In an interview with the channel Al Arabiya, Hariri said that from the time his father was killed, “we wanted justice, and we call on this, Ayyash, to be turned in to the international tribunal.” He also added that “Hezbollah needs to know that it [is responsible] for this crime. And the accused should be turned in”.
Some Lebanese reacted with anger at the tribunal’s decision. Hariri supporters demonstrated in Beirut on Tuesday in opposition to the verdict.
Other Lebanese, including victims waiting 15 years for justice, voiced disbelief at the verdict that acquitted three other Hezbollah members and found no evidence of the involvement of the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government. “I am shocked. Instead of the network (of culprits) expanding, it is now one superman who has done all of that?” said Sanaa al-Sheikh, who was wounded in the February 14, 2005 bomb blast on Beirut’s waterfront that killed Hariri. She added that she had never expected an outcome like this. “They should pay us back the money they got,” said Mahmoud, speaking from a mainly Sunni Muslim district of Beirut loyal to Hariri, referring to the roughly $1 billion costs of the trial.
For some time, there was only silence from Hezbollah, which denied any involvement in the bomb attack. However, fireworks were briefly heard in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s Shia Muslim southern suburbs.
Later, Hezbollah dismissed the indictment, saying it contained no proof of what it said were fabricated accusations. One of the original four suspects, senior Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in Syria in 2016. In addition, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has accused the tribunal of trying to undermine his group and has said it is a tool of its enemies in the United States and Israel.