Crime & Justice

Lebanon tribunal finds Hizbullah suspect guilty of al-Hariri murder



A man rides a motorbike past a billboard bearing a picture of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, on a street in Sidon, his hometown, on August 18th. [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

A UN-backed tribunal on Tuesday (August 18th) found Hizbullah member Salim Ayyash guilty in absentia over the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic al-Hariri in a huge suicide bombing.

"The trial chamber finds Mr. Ayyash guilty beyond reasonable doubt as a co-perpetrator of the assassination of Rafic al-Hariri," said David Re, presiding judge of the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The tribunal also acquitted three Hizbullah members in absentia.

"The trial chamber finds Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra not guilty of all counts charged in the amended consolidated indictment, Re said.

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

There is enough evidence to link two Hizbullah members to mobile phones allegedly involved in the 2005 murder, international judges said Tuesday as they read out verdicts.

The judges said, however, 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 billionaire al-Hariri.

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

Al-Hariri's son Saad, himself a former Lebanese prime minister, was in the heavily secured court for the judgment.

'Beyond reasonable doubt'

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

They were also satisfied that he "had associations with Hizbullah".

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

But they said they were not satisfied with the evidence linking the phones with the two other suspects -- Merhi and Sabra.

The judges said evidence also linked phones to the alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hizbullah 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 Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group. Merhi is accused of general involvement in the plot.

Sentencing will be carried out at a later date, and the court will issue a warrant for any arrests of those convicted in absentia, 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.

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

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

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