Tribunal starts verdict in Lebanon ex-PM Rafik Hariri's 2005 murder

Tribunal starts verdict in Lebanon ex-PM Rafik Hariri's 2005 murder
Judges said there was no evidence to directly link Syria -- the former military overlord in Lebanon -- or Hezbollah's leadership to the attack.
4 min read
Observers have voiced fears that the verdict could spark violence in Lebanon [Getty]

There is enough evidence to link two members of the Hezbollah Shia movement to mobile phones allegedly involved in the 2005 murder of former Lebanon PM Rafik Hariri, international judges said on Tuesday as they read out verdicts at a UN-backed court.

The judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, however, said there was insufficient proof to tie two other suspects to the network of mobiles that prosecutors said were used to plot the huge Beirut suicide bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri.

Judges also said there was no evidence to directly link Syria -- the former military overlord in Lebanon -- or Hezbollah's leadership to the attack. 

The final verdicts will be handed down later on Tuesday at the court just outside The Hague in the Netherlands, where the four alleged Hezbollah members are on trial in absentia.

The bombing that killed Hariri and 21 other people transformed the Middle East, triggering mass protests that drove Syrian forces out of Lebanon after three decades.

The hearing opened with a minute's silence for victims of a separate explosion that devastated Beirut two weeks ago, killing 177 people. The verdicts were initially scheduled for August 7 but postponed because of the blast.

Presiding judge David Re called on the court to observe a "minute's silence to remember the victims of this catastrophe, those who lost their lives, those who were maimed or injured, their families, those who were made homeless".

Hariri's son Saad, himself a former Lebanese prime minister, was in the heavily secured court for the judgment, which was expected to take several hours.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has refused to hand over the four defendants and rejected the legitimacy of the court.

'Beyong reasonable doubt'

The judges said they were "satisfied beyond reasonable doubt" that main suspect Salim Ayyash was most likely the user of some of a group of mobile phones used to scope out Hariri ahead of the attack, the key plank of the prosecution case. 

They were also satisfied that the 56-year-old Ayyash "had associations with Hezbollah". 

Judges also said they were satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Hussein Oneissi, 46, was the main user of another of the phones. 

However they said they were not satisfied with the evidence linking the phones with the two other suspects -- Hassan Habib Merhi, 54, and Assad Sabra, 43. 

In Sabra's case they said there was evidence he shared the phone with his wife, adding that this was "fatal to the case against Mr Sabra".

The judges said evidence also linked phones to the alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine -- who was indicted by the court but is believed to have been killed in the Damascus area in May 2016.

Prosecutors said Ayyash was a ringleader of the group, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly sent a fake video to the Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group. 

Merhi is accused of general involvement in the plot.

"Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Hariri and his political allies, however there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri's murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement," Re said.

Fears of turmoil

Billed as the world's first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, the UN Security Council agreed in 2007 to set up the court and it opened its doors in 2009, although the trial itself did not formally start until 2014.

It has cost at least $600 million to operate.

The suspects face life imprisonment if convicted, although sentencing will be carried out at a later date. If the four are convicted and not present, the court will issue arrest warrants, a court spokesman said.

Both the prosecution and defence can appeal against the judgment and sentence and if a defendant is eventually arrested he can request a retrial.

Prosecutors said during the trial that Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a "severe threat" to Syrian control of the country, allied to Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Hariri was Lebanon's Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria's role as powerbroker in the country.

Observers have voiced fears that the verdict, whichever way it goes, could spark violence on the streets in Lebanon when it is announced.

Tuesday's verdict comes as thousands of Beirut residents have expressed anger at the authorities after the blast, triggered by a warehouse fire that set off large amounts of stored ammonium nitrate.

The disaster led to the Lebanese government's resignation and compounded Lebanon's severe economic crisis.