UN Court Gives Hezbollah Militant Life for Killing Prime Minister

Judges and staff are seen at the United Nations-backed Lebanon Tribunal in the Netherlands on Friday, with prosecution and defense counsel connecting via video link due to Covid-19 measures. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A Hezbollah member convicted of killing the former prime minister of Lebanon was sentenced to five life sentences on Friday. 

Judges on a special United Nations tribunal cited deterrence for others and the gravity of the crime as justification for giving the maximum penalty to Salim Ayyash, who was not present in The Hague-based courtroom. He was convicted in absentia in August for his role in the 2005 bombing that killed Rafik Hariri and 21 others. 

“Mr. Ayyash’s crimes are extremely grave,” said Judge Micheline Braidy. “Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy and its leaders should be removed at the ballot box, not with a bullet or a bomb.” 

Hariri’s six-car convoy was traveling from a cafe en route to his home along a seaside road in Beirut on Valentine’s Day when a Mitsubishi van packed with 4,000 pounds of TNT exploded nearby. 

The prosecution had asked for the maximum sentence permitted, which is life imprisonment under the statute that created the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Formed in 2009, the U.N. tribunal was tasked with prosecuting the perpetrators of the suicide bomb attack. Originally given a three-year mandate and predicted to cost $120 million, the tribunal has come under fire for both its expenses and slow pace. The investigation and trial have taken 15 years and cost about $1 billion. 

Lawyers for the victims in the case had asked the court to impose a financial penalty as well, but the request was denied.

“The trial chamber is not convinced that it could make such an order,” Judge Janet Nosworthy said in a courtroom that was most empty due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

The judges instead suggested that the Lebanese government set up a trust fund for victims of all crimes that would be internationally funded. For crimes within its jurisdiction, Judge David Re said, the tribunal could serve as the fund’s administrator.

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

Along with other anti-Syrian politicians, Hariri opposed ongoing pressure from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to include members of Hezbollah in the government. Syria had long exerted dominion over its neighbor. After the assassination, the so-called Cedar Revolution led to the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

“Mr. Ayyash did not act alone. Rather he was a single participant in a complex network, the majority of whom the prosecution has been unable to identify,” Judge Braidy said.

Nosworthy said earlier in the hearing that it was likely the perpetrators had state backing from Syria in carrying out the attack. 

Ayyash’s three co-defendants – Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra – were acquitted by the court. A fourth man, Mustafa Badreddine, was charged in the attack but the case was dropped after he was killed in Damascus in 2016. It was the first time criminal defendants were not present at an international tribunal since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials.

The verdict comes one day after a Lebanese prosecutor announced that the country’s interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab will be charged over the massive explosion at Beirut’s port earlier this year, which killed more than 200 people.

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