The eldest son of murdered Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has accepted the long-awaited verdict of the special UN-backed tribunal into the killing of his father, but said the family “must see justice” after judges found only one of four defendants guilty of involvement in the attack.
Speaking after the verdict in the years-long trial, believed to have cost $1 billion, the Saudi-Lebanese businessman said he still believed Hezbollah and the Syrian government were linked to his father's murder, as much "indirect evidence" pointed to a political assassination that could not have happened without their knowledge.
"To me, we cannot exclude ... that there is no relation," the billionaire told The National by phone from London. "How can such a huge event happen without any relation to the leadership? We have to be careful, but it is crystal clear to me that it happened in a very politically charged environment.
“I fully accept the verdict of the court, but I want to make sure to every Lebanese, the court also said there is plenty of indirect evidence that this was a political assassination, there was no political vacuum, it pointed the finger on that very, very clearly," he said.
His brother Saad, himself a former prime minister of Lebanon, who was forced to resign last year amid widespread anti-corruption protests, also accepted the court’s ruling. He repeated his brother’s message, saying: “We will not rest until punishment is served.”
The eldest brother described a painful day for the Hariri family, but one that had provided some comfort after a six-year wait for the tribunal’s conclusion.
“It was a very emotional day,” he said, a day that brought back “painful memories, because unfortunately I was there when the assassination happened. On such events, everything comes back vividly”.
He said the family had closure, “to a certain point”.
More than 15 years after a suicide truck bomb ripped through Rafik Hariri’s motorcade in central Beirut, judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon found the lead defendant, Salim Jamil Ayyash, guilty beyond reasonable doubt of involvement in Hariri’s murder.
Judges at the tribunal found Ayyash, a member of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah, to be a co-conspirator on five changes linked to the truck bombing that killed the prime minister and 21 others outside Beirut’s St George Hotel on February 14, 2005.
But a judge said prosecutors had provided insufficient evidence to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that three accomplices – Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra – were behind a false claim of responsibility after the blast, a key claim in the prosecution’s case. It also found no evidence the Hezbollah leadership or Syrian government were involved in the planning or execution of the attack.
“It’s crystal-clear to the court that you had a senior member, Salim Ayyash, that was fully, fully guilty of this. He is a senior member of the political structure,” Mr Hariri said.
Ayyash is a relative of killed Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh.
All suspects were tried in absentia in the politically sensitive trial, which began in 2014 and was held in the Dutch town of Leidschendam for security reasons.
They have never been found and Hezbollah refused to hand them over.
Judges on the bench, from Australia, Jamaica and Lebanon, could not find Mustafa Badreddinne – dropped from the case after he was killed in Syria in 2016 – responsible for the blast due to insufficient evidence.
The trial’s conclusion came as Lebanon reels from a massive explosion at Beirut port two weeks ago that killed at least 177 people, injured thousands, left a trail of destruction across the Lebanese capital and prompted the country’s government to resign.
Mr Hariri has blamed Hezbollah and its ally President Michael Aoun for the explosion, caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate confiscated and stored at a port hangar adjacent to the city’s populous centre. A domestic investigation is ongoing but international authorities including the FBI have arrived to assist with efforts to understand how the cache of ammonium came to be there and how it was set alight.
There remains no evidence that Hezbollah was involved in the explosion. But Lebanese protests have focused their scorn on the militia, as well as the political elite, for the wider issues of an underperforming economy and rampant corruption. The militia is viewed by Hariri supporters as sowing more division than the unity the late Hariri had envisioned.
“The Lebanese people are in unison to getting rid of Hezbollah and the warlords,” his son said. “We have an economic collapse, then the Beirut disaster, then this. I think they have a deficit of support among the population. I don’t think their situation is sustainable at all.”
Yet Tuesday’s verdict was widely perceived as a victory for Hezbollah and the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who was one of Hariri’s arch-enemies. Hezbollah has been accused of resisting the efforts of the investigation and undermining it. The militia has denied any responsibility in the murder of the Lebanese prime minister and had criticised the probe as a conspiracy. After Tuesday’s verdict, the question of who ordered the killing remains unanswered.
Bahaa Hariri, whose fortune is about $2 billion, mostly from investments in property and construction, has faced accusations that he seeks to make his own inroads into Lebanon’s political scene, like his brother Saad, while the country is rocked by several crises.
But he denied such ambitions.
“I am not the type of person who precipitates any decisions, but I have decided to contribute to public life,” he said. “I have no intention to be prime minister, or [to hold] any governmental post.”
Largely silent for years before the tribunal’s verdict, Bahaa Hariri has stepped out of the shadows for what, he says, is to be a voice for change in Lebanon. In February, he issued a similar statement denying he had been playing a behind-the-scenes role from outside the country. He now works from Switzerland.
The businessman broke his silence again in May, offering his assistance to those seeking political change in Lebanon and the “revolution” against the country’s system of corruption that experts say sparked an economic crisis and the protest movement that began in October last year. Allies of his brother Saad and members of his Future Movement party questioned Hariri’s eldest son for his reappearance after years absent from Lebanese politics since the 2005 attack.
But he has remained undeterred by the criticism. After the explosion at Beirut port, he opened a Twitter account where he has become a vocal critic of the Lebanese government, their response to the blast and called for an independent, international investigation. In his statement reacting to the verdict, he said: "Lebanon is at the crossroads and staring into an abyss", that warlords have no role in the new Lebanon and that its people must "embrace a different path".
What makes him different to the very people in power who the Lebanese people are railing against? “I haven’t been in politics in 15 years, at the end you have to put the nation’s interests before yours. I have always lived by that doctrine,” he said.
As the country tries to recover from the blast, a spiking coronavirus death toll and the economic downturn, the son of the late Lebanese leader said the country now requires a political overhaul, echoing the demands of thousands of angry Lebanese who have taken to the streets since October.
“We need a new government, a non-sectarian government, that can move the country forward,” he said.
The priorities for a new government must be “construction and aid” and then constitutional and electoral reforms.
But his last message was reserved for his brother, Saad, who attended the trial, but with whom he did not speak on Tuesday.
“I want to send my deepest condolences to all of my brothers and sisters. We are one family.
“It’s a very painful day for all of us,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, we are the Hariri family.”