Hezbollah militant found guilty over assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister

A UN-backed tribunal has convicted one member of the Hezbollah militant group and acquitted three others of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Tuesday ruled Salim Jamil Ayyash was guilty as a co-conspirator of five charges linked to his involvement in the suicide truck bombing of Mr Hariri’s motorcade.

However, after a years-long investigation and trial, three other Hezbollah members were acquitted of all charges that they also were involved in the murder of Mr Hariri that sent shock waves through the Middle East.

Mr Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire, had close ties with Western nations 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.

He and 21 others were killed and 226 were wounded in the huge blast outside a seaside hotel in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

The judges said they were “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt” that the evidence showed that the main defendant, Ayyash, possessed “one of six mobiles used by the assassination team” and ruled he was guilty of committing a terrorist attack and homicide.

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

No evidence Hezbollah leadership or Syria involved

Earlier, the judges said there was no evidence Hezbollah leadership 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, Mr Hariri was a supporter of reducing the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Judge Re said the judges, who studied reams of evidence, were “of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Hariri, and some of his political allies”.

A huge crater in a street surrounded my men in military uniforms, a burned out car and a fire engine.
Rescue workers and soldiers stand around the crater after the bomb attack that tore through Rafik Hariri’s motorcade.(AP)

But he added that there was no evidence the “Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri’s murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it”.

The verdicts were delayed by nearly two weeks as a mark of respect for victims of 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.

Judge Re started the hearing with a minute’s silence to honour victims of the blast and their families as well as those made homeless.

Prosecution based on telecommunications data

Lebanese protesters rally for the anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri
Red, white and green Lebanese flags during a memorial in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on February 14, 2008, to commemorate the third anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination .(Marwan Naamani: AFP Image)

Mr Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his assassination, while Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group backed and funded by Tehran.

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, Judge Re said, as he began explaining the complex investigation into the telecom networks prosecutors say the suspects used.

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.

A courtroom presided over by three judges in judicial robes.
Judges Janet Nosworthy, David Re and Micheline Braidy presided over the UN-backed Lebanon Tribunal in Leidschendam, Netherlands.(AP: Piroschka Van De Wouw)

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 Mr Badreddine was the mastermind behind the assassination.

The remaining suspects were Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi.

They were charged with offenses including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, all were on trial in absentia.

Ayyash is expected to be sentenced at a later date.

He is unlikely to actually face prison as Hezbollah has vowed not to hand over any suspects.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week insisted the innocence of the suspects regardless of the verdicts.

Prosecutors and defence lawyers can appeal the verdicts.

Syria and Hezbollah long suspected

Lebanon's prime minister Saad al-Hariri raises one hand as he speaks into a microphone.
Rafik Hariri’s son Saad al-Hariri, pictured here in 2017, attended the hearing in the Hague to hear the UN tribunal’s verdict.(Reuters: Mohamed Azakir)

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.

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

Mr 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.

Abed Itani, a supporter of the Hariri family in the Beirut neighbourhood of Tareeq al-Jadideh, said they had been waiting for the truth for 15 years.