Rafik Hariri verdict: Nearly $1bn later, where is the justice?

Even after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon convicted one Hezbollah operative, too many questions remain

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On Tuesday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon issued its judgment in the case of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. It took a little over 15 years of investigations, delays and hearings since the bombing that devastated downtown Beirut on Valentine's Day 2005 for the court to reach a decision. It found one member of Hezbollah guilty.

Full disclosure: I worked for the court for two years between 2011 and 2013.

The prosecution had indicted five members of the militant group in the case, which was built on a vast trove of telecommunications evidence and “co-location” to identify the suspects by tracking their mobile phones for days as they carried out surveillance of the Lebanese prime minister, bought the lorry that was laden with explosives and carried out the bombing.

The telecommunications evidence was built on the earlier work of Wissam Eid, a heroic Lebanese security officer who was murdered for his role in uncovering it.

The trial took place in absentia because Hezbollah refused to hand over the suspects, after carrying a broad propaganda campaign to discredit it as a tool of American and Israeli imperialism.

One of the suspects was Mustafa Badreddine, who was the overall military commander of Hezbollah at the time of his death under mysterious circumstances in Syria in 2016. I covered Badreddine's funeral in Beirut, which was carried out with great pomp and ceremony.

In addition to leading the party's campaign in support of Bashar Al Assad, he was also the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, his predecessor and the notorious Hezbollah commander who led the militia in its war with Israel in 2006, and was later assassinated in the heart of Damascus in a joint CIA and Mossad operation. It doesn't get much higher than this in the party's top echelons where its leader Hassan Nasrallah resides.

The other key suspect was Salim Ayyash, a Hezbollah member who led the assassination cell and was the main conduit to Badreddine, in addition to buying the truck that was used to attack Hariri's convoy. The three other suspects were allegedly involved in preparing a false claim of responsibility for the assassination.

The court found Ayyash guilty on all counts and refrained from making a detailed statement on Badreddine’s role, because he was dead and therefore no longer an accused. The other three suspects were declared not guilty due to lack of evidence. These decisions are of course all subject to appeal.

The court said it did not find evidence implicating Hezbollah as an organisation in the killing. It is, however, hard to conceive of an operation of such magnitude, sophistication, and with these political ramifications – and with the involvement of one of the party’s most senior and well-connected cadres – taking place without the knowledge of Hezbollah’s leaders and the party’s foreign sponsors.

The prosecution's biggest sin is perhaps that it never did figure out a motive for the assassination of Hariri

Many questions remain unanswered though. Who worked with Ayyash to carry out the assassination (most of the cell that carried out the murder on the day itself have not been identified)? Who did he and Badreddine answer to? Who ordered the assassination? Who made the false claim of responsibility? Were the same people involved in all the other political assassinations that took place in Lebanon around that time? Preparations for a trial in those connected cases are under way. What evidence existed to implicate Syria in the killing of Hariri and others within his political bloc? Who assassinated Eid and what were they worried about him revealing?

But the prosecution's biggest sin is perhaps that it never did figure out a motive for the killing. Hariri's assassination was not an isolated event. It came amid extremely high tensions with Bashar Al Assad, with pressure from foreign powers and Hariri's political bloc and growing popular demand for the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon, which was under the tutelage of Damascus since the end of its civil war. Even after the Syrian army withdrew, a series of assassinations targeted politicians and thinkers from Hariri's political bloc in the aftermath of his death.

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2005 file photo, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, center, speaks to people outside the Lebanese Parliament minutes before an explosion killed him and 22 others, in Beirut, Lebanon. More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts this week in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing. (AP Photo, File)

Syria initially co-operated with the UN’s Hariri probe, and senior security officials were implicated in the initial phase of the investigation. It is unclear whether that evidence was up to the standards of an international tribunal. Prosecutors and investigators since then dithered and delayed, slowing down the pace of the investigation, perhaps in the hopes that more direct evidence would materialise, perhaps to retain their cushy UN jobs.

But justice delayed is justice denied. Hariri’s killers and the murderers of two dozen Lebanese who died in the blast deserve justice and accountability.

But Lebanon and the region have seen great atrocities since that political earthquake: all the subsequent political assassinations and bombings in Lebanon, the war in Syria, the brutality with which the region's strongmen suppressed dissent and protests during the uprisings. And of course, the explosion in Beirut on August 4, a result of sheer criminal negligence, which killed at least 177 people, wounded thousands and levelled an entire city.

The Tribunal’s goal was to put an end to impunity in Lebanon, to put an end to the use of political assassinations as a tool for regional powers and local militias to impose their will. That desire for justice permeates and underlines much of the region’s suffering. At least somebody tried to find out who was responsible and somebody was found responsible, even if he may never face justice.

But perhaps the surest sign of the Tribunal’s failure is that 15 years after Hariri’s death, the perpetrators of the explosion in Beirut are not in the slightest danger of being held accountable. After hundreds of millions of dollars and 15 years of pain, impunity still reigns supreme in Lebanon.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada