Rafik Hariri's son Saad says his family accepts the UN-backed tribunal's verdict but expects Hezbollah to pay a price. The ruling comes some 15 years after the Lebanese prime minister's assassination.

Former Lebanon PM Saad Hariri speaks after a tribunal in Leidschendam, Netherlands, gave its verdict in the 2005 bombing that killed ex-premier Rafik Hariri. August 18, 2020.
Former Lebanon PM Saad Hariri speaks after a tribunal in Leidschendam, Netherlands, gave its verdict in the 2005 bombing that killed ex-premier Rafik Hariri. August 18, 2020. (Eva Plevier / Reuters)

The main defendant in the trial of four men charged with conspiracy to kill former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al Hariri has been found guilty in the deadly truck bombing assassination. All four men on trial are Hezbollah members.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Tuesday found Salim Ayyash 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 February 14, 2005.

Hariri's son Saad, who is himself a former prime minister, said he accepted the verdict, but that he had expected more information to emerge from the trial.

"I think everybody's expectation was much higher than what came out, but I believe that the tribunal came out with a result that is satisfying," he told reporters.

As an hours-long reading of the verdict got under way, judges said they were "satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt" that the evidence showed that Ayyash was a member of Hezbollah and used "one of six mobiles used by the assassination team."

"The evidence also established that Mr Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah," said Judge Micheline Braidy, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict. 

The remaining three suspected, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hassan Habib Merhi were acquitted by the court. 

The four men were on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands. Hezbollah has refused to hand suspects over.

No direct involvement of Syria or Hezbollah leadership

Earlier the tribunal said there's no evidence that the leadership of the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah, or the Syrian government, were involved in the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri.

"The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Hariri and his political allies," Judge David Re said as he read a 150-page summary of the court's 2,600-page decision. 

"However, there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri's murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement," Re said. 

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire, had close ties with the United States, Western, and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.

The verdict on Tuesday comes as Lebanon is still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion that killed 178 people this month and from an economic meltdown that has shattered their lives.

Hariri's assassination plunged Lebanon into what was then its worst crisis since the war, setting the stage for years of confrontation between rival political forces.

Hezbollah denies involvement

The Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the February 14, 2005 bombing.

'International Justice Defeats Intimidation' read a headline in Lebanon's an Nahar daily with a caricature of the slain Hariri's face looking at a mushroom cloud over the devastated city, with a caption: 

"May you also (get justice)", referring to an investigation that could unveil the cause of the blast.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that if any members of the movement were convicted, the group would stand by their innocence.

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The judgment harks back to an event that changed the face of the Middle East, with Hariri's assassination triggering a wave of demonstrations that pushed Syrian forces out of Lebanon after 30 years.

First international court to probe terrorist crimes

The court is billed as the world's first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, and it has cost at least $600 million since it opened its doors in 2009 following a UN Security Council resolution.

But the tribunal faces doubts over its credibility with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand over the defendants, and the case relying almost entirely on mobile phone records.

Nasrallah last week warned the powerful movement would ignore the verdict by the court based in Leidschendam just outside The Hague, saying "we do not feel concerned by the STL's decisions."

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the judgment was delivered from the courtroom with partial virtual participation.

'Terrorist act' 

The four defendants went on trial in 2014 on charges including the "intentional homicide" of Hariri and 21 others, attempted homicide of 226 people wounded in the bombing, and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Ayyash, 56, is accused of leading the team that carried out the bombing, which involved a truck packed full of explosives that detonated near Hariri's motorcade.

Sabra, 43, and Oneissi, 46, allegedly sent a fake video to the Al Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group.

Merhi, 54, is accused of general involvement in the plot.

A fifth member, Mustafa Badreddine, and commander of Hezbollah's military wing, was dropped from the indictment after he was believed to have been killed in Syria in 2016. Prosecutors described him as the "overall controller of the operation" to assassinate Hariri.

If the four are convicted and not present, the court will issue arrest warrants, a court spokesman said earlier.

Both the prosecution and defence can appeal the judgment and sentence, while if a defendant is eventually arrested he can request a retrial.

The website of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon shows the pictures of four men wanted for the assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri in this screen capture. August 17, 2020.
The website of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon shows the pictures of four men wanted for the assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri in this screen capture. August 17, 2020. (Reuters)

Hariri seen as 'severe threat' to Syria's influence

Prosecutors said during the trial that Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a "severe threat" to Syrian control of the country.

Hariri was Lebanon's Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria's role as a power-broker in the country.

The case was "circumstantial" but "compelling", prosecutors said, resting on mobile phone records allegedly showing the suspects conducting intense surveillance of Hariri from just after his resignation until minutes before the blast.

Observers have voiced fears that the verdict, whichever way it goes, could spark violence on the streets in Lebanon when it is announced.

Since its inception "the court has been widely contested," said Karim Bitar, professor of international relations in Paris and Beirut.

"Some have questioned its legitimacy, some have questioned whether this justice would not be selective," he said.

Michael Young of Carnegie Middle East Center wrote recently that the verdicts “will seem like little more than a postscript to an out-of-print book.”

“The UN investigation was glowingly referred to once as a mechanism to end impunity. It has proven to be exactly the contrary,” Young wrote, saying those believed to have carried out the assassination “risk almost nothing today.”

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Tuesday's verdict comes as thousands of Beirut's residents have expressed anger at the authorities after the blast, triggered by a warehouse fire that set off large amounts of stored ammonium nitrate.

The disaster led to the Lebanese government's resignation and compounded Lebanon's severe economic crisis.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies