Special Court convicts 1 of 5 Hezbollah members of killing ex-Lebanese PM

Three Hezbollah officials acquitted, doubt regarding dead official

Workers prepare a giant poster depicting Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon February 12, 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)
Workers prepare a giant poster depicting Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon February 12, 2010
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Tuesday convicted one senior Hezbollah member in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, while acquitting three other Hezbollah officials.
Salim Jamil Ayyash was convicted, while Sassad Hassan Sabra, Hassan Habib Merhi and Hussein Hassan Oneissi were acquitted.
Regarding Mustafa Amine Badreddine – killed in 2016 and relative of the killed notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh – the court said there was strong evidence tying him to a “guilty” mobile telephone network, but that there was insufficient evidence of intent; such as had existed against Ayyash.
Also, the court said it did not need to convict or acquit Badreddine since he is dead.
Israel's Foreign Ministry responded to the verdict, saying:  "The ruling of the tribunal investigating the assassination of [former] prime minister Hariri today was not unequivocal: the terrorist organization Hezbollah and its people were involved in the assassination and disruption of the investigation."
The ministry also stated that the world "must act against [Hezbollah] in order to help Lebanon break free from this threat. The organization's armament, its efforts to establish an arsenal of precision missiles and its operations endanger the entire region."
Harari was assassinated in an audacious and horrific massive bombing on February 14, 2005, that also killed 21 others, injured hundreds and left the area covered in smoke and debris.
The verdict is expected to be an earthquake in Lebanon’s already shaky political system.
Saad al-Hariri, who later succeeded his father Rafik as prime minister, and is still viewed as a power broker in the Sunni-Lebanese sector, was present for the verdict.
Ultimately, part of the key to which defendants were convicted and which acquitted rested on highly complex cellphone “co-location” evidence linking “guilty” anonymous cell phones to personal cell phones of the defendants and eliminating potential alternate explanations.
Regarding Ayyash, the court found overwhelming evidence to link him to the “guilty” cell phones which had systematically followed Hariri and been present in areas where key aspects of the crime occurred. The court also found additional evidence to prove intent.
In contrast, while there was clear evidence that Oneissi and Badreddine were connected to the “guilty” cell phone network, missing was evidence of intent and some the existence of other factual holes.
Regarding Sabra and Merhi, there was some evidence connecting them to the “guilty” cell phone network, but there were alternate explanations and variables which blocked proving their guilt to the high level required as meeting the beyond a reasonable doubt standard even without needing to analyze the issue of intent.
An explosion in Beirut on August 4, killing almost 200 people and injuring thousands led the Lebanese government to resign on August 10, and the country has been engulfed in a new level of finger-pointing against Hezbollah and demands for change.
The verdict was originally set for August 7, but was delayed until Tuesday due to the explosion.
Prosecutors focused the trial for the 2005 murder of al-Hariri mostly on five indicted senior Hezbollah operatives (who were tried in absentia) without indicting any Syrian officials.
Badreddine was dropped from the indictment after he was killed in Syria in 2016.
However, the initial investigation into the incident alleged Syrian involvement. The prosecution’s explanation for their hypothesis that Hezbollah agents assassinated Hariri related to orders the terrorist organization allegedly received from Syria because of al-Hariri’s tendencies to overdo it in seeking independent action from Syria.
In fact, the court on Tuesday all but accused Syria of involvement in al-Hariri’s murder based on various contextual factors, but cautioned that such a charge could not be proved in court.
THE TRIBUNAL also said it could not reach a conclusion about the identity of the suicide bomber who drove the Mitsubishi vehicle which killed al-Hariri. It noted that the only significant forensic evidence of his body was a single tooth indicating he was in his 20s.
At the same time, the tribunal did say prosecution evidence disproved a false claim of responsibility which Hezbollah had promoted to lure investigators off of its scent.
The court said that the party who Hezbollah tried to frame was most likely kidnapped and killed.
Proceedings were delayed for years due to Hezbollah’s hold on power in Lebanon. Even after the August 4 explosion and regardless of Tuesday’s verdict, many expect the group to maintain its stranglehold because its armed forces can overpower any other group.
“The first mandate was a period of investigations and preparations,” a prior STL statement said. “The second saw the opening of the first trial on January 16, 2014. The third mandate will include the completion of the current trial.”
The STL has also said that it “is uniquely placed to make a contribution to the rule of law. In our new mandate, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our legacy is one of significant and enduring value for Lebanon primarily, but also for the region and beyond.”
The trial saw major leaders and personalities testify. One of the highlights came in November 2014, when Lebanese MK Marwan HamadeH told the tribunal that Syria had blocked Lebanon from engaging in peace talks with Israel.
Hamadeh, a Lebanese parliament member, former minister and close ally of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri made the statement in the case against al-Hariri’s alleged assassins.
Speaking alternately in English and Arabic, Hamadeh explained that as part of trying to take over Lebanese foreign policy and governance, Syria “forbade” Lebanon to negotiate with Israel “before Syria was done” negotiating with Israel.
He added that “although Lebanon had hot topics” to talk to Israel about, including the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria blocked all dialogue.
Hamadeh’s main topic of testimony was helping prosecutors build their case for the motive for assassinating al-Hariri.
Because the case is against four senior Hezbollah operatives for killing its former Sunni leader, it essentially pits the country’s Shi’ites against its Sunnis in a region where the two sides have been somewhere between at loggerheads and in outright war.
Until November 2014, the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid further controversy and diplomatic opposition from Syria’s supporters and it did not explain the reason for the timing of the change in strategy.
Assad lost considerable standing in much of the world over the course of the Syrian civil war and is not as strong politically as he was when the trial started.
The trial started in January 2014, garnering massive international interest. It was broadcast in English, Arabic and French, and involved a full courtroom of a couple of dozen lawyers, all of whom made preliminary introductions.
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 Chamber was composed of Presiding Judge David Re, Judge Janet Nosworthy and Judge Micheline Braidy.
The court did not set a schedule for sentencing, though a statement said that Ayyash could face a maximum sentence of life in prison (if ever arrested).
In response to the verdict, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States welcomed the conviction.
In a statement, Pompeo also slammed Hezbollah's "exploitation" of the financial system of Lebanon, which is reeling from the aftermath of the huge August 4 explosion, and said the degradation of Lebanese institutions jeopardized the country's financial well-being and potential recovery.
Reuters contributed to this report.