Hezbollah Member Convicted in Killing of Former Lebanon Prime Minister

Twenty-two people were killed and another 220 were seriously injured when a van packed with 4,000 pounds of explosives detonated in Beirut in February 2005.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon building in Leidschendam, Netherlands. (Courthouse News photo/Molly Quell)

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (CN) — Fifteen years and nearly a billion dollars later, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon convicted one member of Hezbollah and acquitted three others Tuesday in the suicide bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The three-judge panel based in the Netherlands found no evidence for the involvement of the Syrian government or Hezbollah leadership in the 2005 attack but did find sufficient evidence to convict Salim Ayyash of all five charges, including intentional homicide and committing a terrorist act. Three other members of the Iran-backed militia and political party were acquitted. 

“There was no evidence that Hezbollah leadership had any involvement and there is no direct evidence of Syria’s involvement in it,” said Judge David Re, reading a summary of the United Nations tribunal’s 2,600-page decision.

Fifteen years and nearly a billion dollars later, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon convicted one member of Hezbollah and acquitted three others Tuesday in the suicide bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (AP Photo/File)

None of the four men charged – Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra – were present in the Leidschendam courtroom. They were tried in absentia, the first time criminal defendants were not present at an international tribunal since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials. A fifth man, Mustafa Badreddine, was charged in the attack but the charges were dropped after he was killed in Damascus in 2016. 

Formed in 2009, the U.N. tribunal was tasked with prosecuting the perpetrators of the suicide bomb attack on Hariri’s convoy along a seaside road in Beirut. A Mitsubishi van packed with 4,000 pounds of TNT exploded as the six-car convoy traveled from a cafe en route to Hariri’s home. Twenty-two people included Hariri were killed and another 220 were seriously injured. 

Tuesday’s verdict came two weeks after a massive explosion ripped through the country’s capital, killing nearly 200 people and injuring thousands. The hearing opened with a minute of silence for the victims. 

Hariri, a Lebanese business tycoon, became the country’s first prime minister following a 15-year civil war in the country. He would lead his country from 1992 until 1998 and again from 2000 until he resigned in 2004. 

Together with other anti-Syrian politicians, Hariri opposed ongoing pressure from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to include members of Hezbollah in the government. Syria had long exerted dominion over its neighbor and, following the assassination, the outbreak of the Cedar Revolution led to the expulsion of Syrian troops from the country. 

The tribunal, originally given a three-year mandate and predicted to cost $120 million, has come under fire for both its expenses and slow pace. The investigation and trial has taken 15 years and cost about $1 billion. Lebanon contributes 49% of the tribunal’s budget with the remaining 51% comes from voluntary contributions from 28 countries. 

Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the bombing.  

“We do not feel concerned by the [tribunal]’s decisions,” Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, said in a televised address last week.

“For us, it will be as if no decision was ever announced,” he added. “If our brothers are unjustly sentenced, as we expect, we will maintain their innocence. Syria has also denied involvement. 

The case marks the first time the crime of terrorism has been prosecuted in an international tribunal. Nearly all of the evidence presented to the three-judge panel was circumstantial telecom data. The prosecution mapped out the movements of the five men using the location data of more than 50 phones. 

“This case relied on telecommunications evidence. Without this, there was no case against the accused,” said Judge Re.

Critics of the tribunal have found further fault with the narrow scope of the court, which was initially only tasked with investigating Hariri’s assassination and not the Lebanese Civil War, which left 120,000 people and more than a million displaced. The tribunal announced late last year that it would investigate three more suicide bombing attacks on Lebanese politicians from 2004 and 2005. 

Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister who himself also led the country until the beginning of this year, told a crowd in front of the tribunal building Tuesday: “We accept the court’s verdict and we want justice to be fulfilled.” 

Lebanese President Michel Aoun also urged the Lebanese people to accept the judgment. 

“We have to accept the verdict, even though a delayed justice is not justice,” he said in a statement.

Tuesday’s verdict did not include a decision on sentencing. That will come at a later date.

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