(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon decided on Friday to allow prosecutors to present new evidence against Syrian President Bashar Assad in the case against mainly Hezbollah operatives for the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Beirut’s Daily Star reported that prosecutors will seek to expose Assad’s role in the massive bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others. This is a major and controversial change in the prosecution’s strategy.
Because the case is being tried in absentia against five senior Hezbollah operatives for killing the former Sunni leader, it essentially pits the country’s Shiites against its Sunnis in a region where the two sides are already at loggerheads or outright war.
Until now the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid further controversy and diplomatic opposition from Syria’s supporters. It did not explain the reason for the change in strategy.
Assad has lost considerable standing in much of the world over the course of the ongoing Syrian civil war and is not as strong politically as he was when the trial started. The new evidence focuses on the breakdown of relations between Hariri and Assad.
“Let’s call a spade a spade, your honor,” Iain Edwards, a defense lawyer for a senior Hezbollah operative accused of complicity in the attack, told the court.
“The prosecutor is now basing his case on Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri.”
Edwards added that the prosecution is effectively saying that Syria, Assad, and his security apparatus wanted the Lebanese prime minister killed.
The dramatic development comes at a bad time for Assad, who is fighting for survival after nearly four years of civil war in Syria. No Syrian official has ever been charged in connection with the Hariri assassination by the tribunal, which is based in The Hague.
The case underscores the deep political divisions in Lebanon, which have been exacerbated by the Syria conflict. The Shiite Hezbollah has been fighting on behalf of Assad in Lebanon, but the Sunni Muslims whom Hariri once represented see the Assad regime as their arch enemy.
The trial started in January and garnered massive international interest. It was broadcast in English, Arabic, and French and involved a courtroom full of dozens of lawyers, all of who made initial introductory remarks.
Initially, the trial involved four previously announced defendants – Mustafa Amine Badreddine (relative of the killed notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh), Salim Ayyash, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, and Sassad Hassan Sabra, but eventually Hassan Habib Merhi was added as a defendant.
Despite years of attempts to locate the defendants, including visits to their known residences, meetings with village elders from their home villages and meetings with Hezbollah representatives, none of these men has been found.
In some cases, officers of the court, trying to serve the indictment to defendants, were prevented from doing so by Hezbollah security or only allowed to do so at a later date – when no one was home.
Ultimately, the court found that advertising and media stories had reached nearly the entire adult population of Lebanon, and considered all defendants on notice of the case and in willful violation of the obligation to appear in court.
The court is a tribunal of international character established on March 1, 2009, with headquarters on the outskirts of The Hague as well as an office in Beirut.
The trial has been characterized by a wide range of witnesses and the showing of pictures of the horrid scene of the attack, with the prosecutor saying “the people of Lebanon have the right to this trial” to “seek the truth, to reveal the identity of the killers who tried to conceal their identity.”
Reuters contributed to this report.