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January 16, 2014

Hariri Assassination Trial Opens in The Hague

by Lisa Bryant

A suicide bombing in northern Lebanon Thursday coincided with the start of a much awaited trial in The Hague. Four men are accused in absentia of plotting the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Some fear the trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon risks further fueling deadly sectarian violence in the Middle Eastern country.

The prosecution at The Hague trial played footage of the moments after a powerful car bomb shook Beirut's waterfront nearly nine years ago. The blast killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

Scores more were wounded. Images showed anguished people trying to rescue victims, charred and mangled vehicles, and the body of  Hariri covered by a blanket.

Hariri's son, the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, attended the trial's opening at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on the outskirts of the Dutch city. So did family members of other victims.

Prosecutor Norman Farrell said those responsible for the blast used an enormous amount of high explosives, deliberately aimed to kill ordinary citizens as well as the prime minister.

"The case against the accused… is built on a number of different strands of evidence, understood in their relation to each other and in their totality," he said. "Each reinforces the other… [it] is the numerous pieces of reinforcing evidence, including the indelible trails which the accused cannot erase.

"When taken together, [they] lead, in the prosecution's submission, beyond [a] reason[able] doubt, to the conclusion that each of the four accused carried out the acts attributed them and are guilty of the crimes charged," he said.

​​The four suspects - Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra and Hussein Oneissi - are being tried in absentia. They are all members of Lebanon's militant Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.

They are charged with planning the car bombing that killed Hariri. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to life in prison. A fifth man, Hassan Habib Merhi, was indicted later and is not officially a suspect in this trial.

Hezbollah denies any involvement. It claims the United States and Israel are behind the assassination.

With a mass of evidence to be presented and hundreds of witness statements, the proceedings may take years.

​​Another prosecutor, Alexander Milne, detailed the minutes leading up to the bombing. He displayed photos of a smiling Hariri leaving Beirut's parliament and later sounds of the blast disrupting a speech in the building, located about a kilometer away.

"The Beirut terrorist bombing of the 14th of February 2005 shook the people of Lebanon and the rest of the world," he said. "Initial outrage and horror gave way to a firm determination to establish what had happened and to find out who was responsible."

Many believe Syria was behind the assassination of Mr. Hariri, a powerful Sunni politician with close ties to Saudi Arabia. Damascus, which has close links to Hezbollah, has denied any involvement. The killing sparked massive demonstrations in Lebanon that helped to end Syria's military presence there.

Some hail the trial for ending a sense of impunity tied to other killings in Lebanon - even though the suspects remain at large. But others fear it will further deepen tensions between Lebanese Sunni and Shia Muslims.

​The country has been shaken by a string of recent killings. Early Thursday, a suicide bomb blast in the north killed several people and wounded more than two dozen.

A car bomb last month near the 2005 blast site killed Mohamad Chatah, another Hezbollah critic and a former aide to Saad Hariri. Again, Hezbollah and Syria were accused of being behind his death.

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