A Bulgarian court on Monday sentenced in absentia two Hezbollah operatives to life in prison for blowing up a tour bus in 2012 in Burgas. The terrorist attack killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian-Muslim bus driver.
The sentence may bring to an end a terrorist saga that shook Europe to its foundations for its audacity. But it leaves the families of the victims and Israel partially unsatisfied because Hezbollah itself was not formally indicted or convicted.
At a July 2019 anniversary ceremony for the victims, their families had demanded that Hezbollah be charged for terrorism in the Bulgarian trial.
Kobi Price, one of the family members, said: “Three years ago… four years after the attack, the criminal trial opened… In the indictment… only two attackers” were charged.
“We, the mourning families, ask the government of Bulgaria to rise above narrow political considerations and to add the terrorist organization Hezbollah to the indictment without delay,” he said.
“Without Hezbollah, there is no morality in the trial,” he added. “Without Hezbollah, the trial is ineffective. Without Hezbollah, there is no justice for the murdered victims.”
It was unclear how much deterrence or justice could be achieved against the attackers with Hezbollah as an organization left untouched, Price reiterated to The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
In January 2018, the Post exclusively disclosed that the Bulgarian state prosecution had decided not to charge Hezbollah as an organization with involvement in the 2012 bomb attack at the Burgas airport.
Instead, the prosecutor indicted the two men allegedly involved in the attack as if they were terrorists or even regular criminals who acted without connection to an organization. The word “Hezbollah” does not appear in the indictment.
In addition, the indictment did not mention standard terrorism offenses such as “acting as part of a terrorist organization” or connecting the murder offense to terrorism, referring instead to merely disturbing public order.
When the Bulgarian prosecutor on the case was confronted with these anomalies, he claimed that no one had provided him with evidence demonstrating Hezbollah’s involvement, sources close to the case told the Post at the time.
This directly contradicted evidence from then Bulgarian interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov that came to light immediately after the attack, which indicated Hezbollah was the culprit.
In 2013, Tsvetanov’s successor, Tsvetlin Yovchev, told reporters before a commemoration ceremony: “There are clear signs that say Hezbollah is behind the Burgas bombing.”
Also in 2013, then Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both confirmed the solid evidence linking Hezbollah to the Burgas attack.
Bulgaria’s investigation into the Burgas bombing led to the European Union placing Hezbollah’s armed wing on its blacklist.
The ruling party in Bulgaria has changed numerous times since 2012, and some observers said politics had hamstrung the trial.
Toby Dershowitz, senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank focused on national security, told the Post: “Bulgaria has long known that Hezbollah was behind this horrific attack and has been clear about it. The fact that Bulgaria says it only has a mechanism to prosecute individuals, and not organizations, should not permit Hezbollah to yet again murder with impunity.”
“Prosecutor General Geshev’s comments that the evidence shows that Hezbollah provided funding and logistical support underscores what Bulgarian, Europol, American and other officials have stated for several years,” she said.
“Now that the courts took the expected action, and those on trial were found guilty, Europe, individual states and the EU should once and for all formally resolve that it will not permit Hezbollah to engage in malign activities, including murder, on its soil without repercussions of a full Hezbollah ban,” Dershowitz said.
Bulgaria sent extradition orders to Lebanon’s government regarding the two Hezbollah operatives, who were then charged with the act of terrorism, the Post previously reported.
Lebanese-Australian Meliad Farah and Lebanese-Canadian Hassan El Hajj Hassan have been convicted of blowing up the tour bus in Burgas. They are believed to be in Lebanon.
There are also US court documents from other terrorism and Hezbollah-related cases that have confirmed the two convicted men as well as the third attacker who died in the attack, French-Lebanese national Jacques Felipe Martin (aka Mohamad Hassan el-Husseini), were connected to Hezbollah.
The two convicted terrorists allegedly entered Bulgaria using false drivers licenses printed in Lebanon, according to media reports.
Bulgarian Jewish leader and B’nai B’rith Europe vice president Solomon Bali told the Post: “The verdict was expected. Probably, the perpetrators will never be brought to Bulgarian jail. But the case urged EU foreign ministers to designate the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”
“As a person very much affected by this terrorist act, I hope that it will not take other lives to put the whole terrorist network of Hezbollah and its supporters and sponsors on the list of those who must stay out of the normal human society in order to secure for our children’s future happiness and not fear and hate,” he said.
1/4 Israel welcomes the verdict for life imprisonment without parole by the Specialized Criminal Court in Bulgaria of the two members of the Hezbollah terrorist organization for their part in the murderous attack committed at the Burgas airport on July 19th 2012. pic.twitter.com/TS7WNTILtj— Lior Haiat (@LiorHaiat) September 21, 2020
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this story.