An international court sentenced fugitive Hizbullah member Salim Ayyash Friday (December 11th) to five life jail terms for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.
Ayyash, 57, was found guilty in absentia of murder and terrorism on August 18th by the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) over the huge suicide bombing that killed the Sunni billionaire politician and injured 226 others.
Ayyash remains on the run, with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand him over or to recognise the UN-backed court, irking many Lebanese who see the group as obstructing the course of justice.
"Mr. Ayyash participated in an act of terrorism that caused mass murder," chief Judge David Re said as he announced the sentence.
"The trial chamber is satisfied that it should impose the maximum sentence for each of the five crimes of life imprisonment, to be served concurrently."
The court has issued an international arrest warrant for Ayyash for the "extremely grave" crimes.
The Hizbullah chief's statements on refusing to surrender Ayyash led Judge Re to make the "inference" that he was being shielded from justice, he said.
Al-Hariri's son Saad, who himself went on to become premier, called on Lebanese authorities to help bring Ayyash to justice.
"The sentence issued against Salim Ayyash should be executed and Lebanese judicial and security officials should fulfill their duties in this regard," al-Hariri said on Twitter.
Citizens have expressed their disappointment with the August 18th verdict following a trial that lasted six years and cost millions of dollars.
Lebanese citizens Jamil Itani and Muhammad Salman told Al-Mashareq the verdict was "incomplete because it did not name Hizbullah and the Syrian regime [as convicted parties] and only convicted Salim Ayyash, who is at large".
STL's verdict is "an affront to the victims, their families and the justice we were waiting for", they said.
An organised crime
The attack on al-Hariri, who served as Lebanon's prime minister until he resigned in October 2004, changed the face of the Middle East.
He was killed in February 2005 when a suicide bomber detonated a van filled with explosives as his armoured convoy drove past on the Beirut seafront.
The "massive" bombing, which left an 11-metre wide crater, was "intended to and in fact inflicted terror", the court said.
The attack triggered mass protests that drove Syrian forces out of Lebanon after three decades. Al-Hariri had opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
Judges said Ayyash was at the centre of a network of mobile phone users who scoped out al-Hariri's movements for months before his assassination.
Sentencing Ayyash on Friday, the court said while there was no direct evidence of Syria or its ally Hizbullah's involvement, the attack "most probably had to involve state actors".
"The state with the most to gain from Mr. al-Hariri's assassination was probably Syria," judge Janet Nosworthy said.
Analysts speaking with Al-Mashareq said the Lebanese and Syrian governments refused to co-operate in investigations and concealed evidence, hence obstructing justice in the case of the three other defendants: Assad Sabra, Hussein Oneissi and Hassan Habib Merhi.
Lebanese judicial analyst Youssef Diab said the verdict disappointed many, especially families of the victims and Rafik al-Hariri's supporters, who were expecting a harsher verdict.
The acquittal of the three defendants was a surprise to them, he said, because all the evidence pointed to their involvement in the crime yet the court declared that there was not sufficient evidence to convict them while evidence against Ayyash was conclusive.
"Everyone expected Hizbullah and the Syrian regime to refrain from co-operating with the court to prevent an avalanche of accusations and subsequent indictment," Diab said.
The court "made tremendous effort and relied on evidence and leads gathered by international investigation committees and the international public prosecutor", he said.
Since the crime was organised and committed with detailed planning, the prosecutor may appeal the acquittal of the three other defendants, he said.
"We have to wait for new trial chapters that could reopen the Hariri case," Diab added.
The court's verdict was disappointing to many Lebanese after years of waiting and enormous sums of money spent on investigations, journalist Sarah Matar said.
The STL was expensive, consuming in just over a decade up to $1 billion dollars when including the cost of investigations.
Verdict 'message to all terrorists'
Political writer Mohammed Nimr told Al-Mashareq the Lebanese "were waiting for bigger verdicts from the court, but the verdict confirms that the court is not politicised and issued its verdicts based on the evidence, proof and information it obtained from the available investigations, despite attempts to misdirect them".
"Those who read the verdict and the political course of events that preceded al-Hariri's assassination will clearly conclude that the Syrian regime and Hizbullah were involved in the assassination, and the court deliberately included this in the text of the verdict," said Nimr.
The verdict, while disappointing to many, is a message to all terrorists targeting Lebanese leaders, he said, and history will record that a Hizbullah leader assassinated al-Hariri.
While it is not surprising that the Syrian regime refused to co-operate with the STL, the entire world is now aware that the Syrian regime has blood on its hands, and the Syrian revolution and its outcomes show as much, he said.
Legal experts said the sentencing was still important, even without Ayyash in the dock.
"In absentia trials are of course not the ideal way of dispensing international justice," Christophe Paulussen, senior researcher at the Asser Institute in The Hague, told AFP.
International tribunals were like "a giant without arms and legs" since they relied on states to arrest suspects and could not enforce orders themselves.
"But even with this handicap, the STL has now at least established a very authoritative judicial record about what happened 15 years ago, thus assisting the Lebanese society in moving away from a culture of impunity towards one of accountability," said Paulussen.