LIMASSOL, Cyprus – A Hezbollah member appeared in a Cypriot court on
Thursday for the last time before it rules on whether he plotted to attack
Israeli interests on behalf of the Iran-backed terror group.
If the court
finds the Lebanese-Swedish man Hossam Taleb Yaccoub guilty when it delivers a
verdict on March 21, it will strengthen calls for the EU to follow the US lead
and declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Yaccoub was arrested in
the Cypriot port city of Limassol last year, two weeks before a suicide bomber
killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in July, an attack Sofia blamed on
Hezbollah, a charge the group denied.
The prosecution says Yaccoub
tracked the movements of Israeli tourists in Burgas, a popular holiday
destination in the eastern Mediterranean, noting arrival times of flights from
Israel and registration numbers of buses ferrying visitors to hotels.
pleaded not guilty to eight counts of conspiracy, consent to commit a crime and
participation in a criminal organization.
Yaccoub, who was 24 when
arrested, has not denied he is a member of Hezbollah or that he carried out
courier duties for the organization in Europe. He says he never plotted any
crime but merely acted on the instructions of a handler, who always wore a mask
whenever they met.
In a wood-paneled courtroom packed with high school
students observing the proceedings, Yaccoub nodded in greeting before taking his
seat in the dock, head bowed as he listened intently to proceedings translated
from Greek to Arabic.
Unlike earlier appearances, Yaccoub was
clean-shaven, and had laces in his shoes. The hearing was mostly procedural,
with prosecutors and defense lawyers filing their closing arguments in
The EU has resisted pressure from the US and Israel to blacklist
Hezbollah, arguing this could destabilize Lebanon’s fragile government and
contribute to instability in the Middle East.
But a guilty verdict in
Cyprus would add to the pressure created by the bombing in Bulgaria – with both
countries EU members – for the 27- nation bloc to crack down on the
Hezbollah, which is now a powerful part of Lebanese Prime
Minister Najib Mikati’s government, says the accusations against it are part of
an Israeli smear campaign.
The fact that it is currently not designated a
criminal group is a matter Yaccoub’s defense team is trying to use to its
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on the EU, which
Israel has pressed for some two decades to put Hezbollah on its terrorist list,
to “draw the necessary conclusions.”
“The attack in Burgas was an attack
on European soil against an EU country,” Netanyahu said.
staff contributed to this report.