Terrorism

Verdict looms in killing of Lebanon ex-PM Hariri

By AFP

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A file photo taken on January 16th, 2014 shows the exterior of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. [Toussaint Kluiters/Pool/AFP]

A UN-backed tribunal will give its verdict Friday (August 7th) on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic al-Hariri, but questions will remain over a long and costly trial whose suspects remain at large.

Four alleged members of the militia Hizbullah are on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands over the huge Beirut suicide bombing that killed Sunni billionaire al-Hariri and 21 other people.

The judgment harks back to an event that changed the face of the Middle East, with al-Hariri's assassination triggering a wave of demonstrations that pushed Syrian forces out of Lebanon after 30 years.

"Even though Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations, this particular assassination was quite an earthquake in 2005," Karim Bitar, a professor of international relations in Paris and Beirut told AFP ahead of the verdict.

The court is billed as the world's first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, and it has cost at least $600 million since it opened its doors in 2009 following a UN Security Council resolution.

But the tribunal faces doubts over its credibility with Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand over the defendants, and the case relying almost entirely on mobile phone records.

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the judgment "will be delivered from the courtroom with partial virtual participation" at 9 a.m. GMT on Friday.

'Intentional homicide'

The four defendants went on trial in 2014 on charges including the "intentional homicide" of al-Hariri and 21 others, attempted homicide of 226 people wounded in the bombing, and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Salim Ayyash, 56, is accused of leading the team that carried out the bombing, which involved a truck packed full of explosives that detonated near al-Hariri's motorcade on February 14th, 2005.

Assad Sabra, 43, and Hussein Oneissi, 46, allegedly sent a fake video to the Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group.

Hassan Habib Merhi, 54, is accused of general involvement in the plot.

The alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hizbullah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was indicted by the court but is believed to have died while fighting with the Syrian regime in May 2016.

The surviving suspects face life imprisonment if convicted, although sentencing will be carried out at a later date.

"If a convicted person is at liberty and not present, the trial chamber shall issue a warrant of arrest," a court spokesman said.

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

'Compelling case'

Prosecutors said during the trial that al-Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a "severe threat" to Syrian control of the country.

Al-Hariri was Lebanon's Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria's role as power-broker in the country.

The case was "circumstantial" but "compelling", prosecutors said, resting on mobile phone records allegedly showing the suspects conducting intense surveillance of al-Hariri from just after his resignation until minutes before the blast.

Saad al-Hariri, who later went on to become prime minister like his father, called on supporters to demonstrate "patience" and avoid social media disputes about the verdict.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab called on people to avoid "fishing in troubled waters" and said authorities "must be ready to deal with the fallout" of the judgment.

The verdict will not be the end of the tribunal's work, as it opened a second case last year charging prime suspect Ayyash with terrorism and murder over deadly attacks on politicians in 2004 and 2005.

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