Rafik Hariri assassination trial verdict to further divide Lebanon

UN-backed tribunal in Netherlands to announce verdicts this week in trial of four Hezbollah members

FILE- In this Feb. 14, 2005 file photo, destroyed vehicles litter the site of a massive bomb attack that tore through the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri 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)
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A UN-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is on Tuesday due to announce verdicts in the trial of four Hezbollah members allegedly involved in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which deeply divided the country.

The verdicts at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, on the outskirts of The Hague, are expected to add to tension in Lebanon, two weeks after an explosion at Beirut’s port killed 177 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed thousands of homes.

The explosion on August 4 was believed to be a result of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that accidentally ignited at Beirut’s port.

While the cause of the fire that sparked the explosion is unclear, Hezbollah, which holds huge influence over Lebanese politics, is being sucked into the public fury directed at ruling politicians.

Hariri and 21 others were killed by a lorry bomb blast on February 14, 2005, which wounded 226 people.

Even before the Beirut port blast, the country’s leaders were concerned about violence after the verdicts.

Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah is Shiite.

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

One analyst believes the long investigation and trial have made the result almost redundant. The defendants remain at large.

Michael Young, of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, recently wrote 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,” Mr Young wrote.

Those believed to have carried out the assassination “risk almost nothing today”, he said.

But for others, especially those more closely linked to the violence that has plagued Lebanon, the verdicts carry significance.

“It’s going to be a great, great moment, not only for me as a victim but for me as a Lebanese, as an Arab and as an international citizen looking for justice everywhere,” said prominent former legislator and Cabinet minister Marwan Hamadeh.

Mr Hamadeh was seriously wounded in a blast four months before Hariri’s assassination.

He said those who killed Hariri were also behind the attempt on his life.

The tribunal has indicted one suspect in Hariri’s assassination with involvement in the attempt on Mr Hamadeh’s life.

Mr Hamadeh resigned as a member of parliament in protest a day after the Beirut port blast.

The Hariri assassination was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria.

It stunned and deeply divided the country, which has since been split between a western-backed coalition and another supported by Damascus and Iran.

Syria has denied involvement in Hariri’s killing.

After protests that followed the assassination, Damascus was forced to withdraw thousands of troops from Lebanon, ending a three-decade domination of its smaller neighbour.

The tribunal was set up in 2007 under a UN Security Council resolution because deep divisions in Lebanon blocked parliamentary approval of the court, which operates on a mixed system of Lebanese and international law.

The investigation and trial cost about $1 billion (Dh3,67bn), of which Lebanon paid 49 per cent and other nations paid the rest.

Initially, five suspects in the case were tried in their absence, all of them Hezbollah members.

One of the group’s top military commanders Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria in 2016 and charges against him were dropped.

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

They are charged with offences including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act and face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted.

Sentences will not be announced on Tuesday but will be determined at later hearings.

But the four defendants are unlikely to serve any prison time.

They have never been detained despite international arrest warrants, and Hezbollah has vowed never to hand over any suspects.

Even if they are all convicted, Hezbollah as a group will not officially be blamed as the tribunal only accuses people, not groups or states.

Prosecutors based their indictments on telecoms data of mobile phones that the suspects allegedly used to track Hariri’s movements, starting weeks before the assassination.

The tribunal heard evidence from 297 witnesses during the trial, which started in 2014 and spanned 415 days of hearings.

Omar Nashabe, who served as a consultant for the defence team in the tribunal for about five years, said that since there was no consensus in Lebanon over the tribunal and parliament did not approve it, the trial “may not be the best process to reach justice in such cases”.

Mr Nashabe said the people of Lebanon were divided between those who wanted the tribunal to confirm their suspicions about the perpetrators, and others who continued to regard the court as part of a wider conspiracy to discredit Hezbollah.

“Therefore this tribunal is doomed to fail because of the lack of consensus,” he said.

If the defence launches an appeal, the verdict will not mark the end.

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

“For us it will be as if they were never issued,” Mr Nasrallah said of the verdicts.

He warned against attempts to exploit the verdicts internally and externally to target the group.

Former prime minister Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafik, said he would make a statement about the verdicts after they were made public.

Asked about concerns over repercussions of the verdict, he said: “Justice must prevail, regardless of the cost."

Since the assassination, several top Syrian and Hezbollah security officials have been killed in what some supporters of the tribunal say were murders to hide evidence.

Mr Hamadeh called such deaths “Godly justice”.

“We don’t know how," he said. "Some say they were liquidated by their own teams.

"Some say the Syrian regime got rid of them to put the suspicion and the doubts away. Some said internal feuds."

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