NEW YORK - Judges at a U.N. backed tribunal are reading the verdict in the trial of four people accused of involvement in the 2005 roadside bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others as his convoy passed along the Beirut waterfront.
The four suspects are members of Hezbollah.
A tribunal judge said Tuesday that the judges found that while Syria and Hezbollah “may have had motives to eliminate” Hariri, there is no evidence either was involved in Hariri’s assassination.
Syria and Hezbollah were not on trial, but in the aftermath of the assassination, fingers were pointed at Damascus and massive national protests led to Syria's troop withdrawal from Lebanon.
The tribunal judges said it is beyond a reasonable doubt that a suicide bomber set off the explosion, but that they could not make any finding as to the identity of the bomber.
A U.N. Security Council resolution established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2007, following a request from the government of Lebanon to the United Nations.
The trial involved 297 witnesses and 3,000 evidence exhibits.
The prosecution presented evidence, much of it technical and focused around the defendants’ phone records, to prove its case that the men watched Hariri for weeks, organized the attack and orchestrated a cover up to protect the real conspirators.
The defense has argued the evidence is circumstantial and the data unreliable.
Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra face a maximum of life in prison if convicted. But they have not been seen in years and have been tried by the tribunal “in absentia,” so would likely serve no prison time.
Hariri’s son, Saad, himself a former Lebanese prime minister, flew Monday to Leidschendam, in the suburbs of The Hague where the court is located, to attend Tuesday’s judgment. His office said he would make a statement after the verdict is delivered.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was originally supposed to read their decision on August 7, but had delayed because of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut on August 4. The court began Tuesday’s proceedings with a moment of silence for those victims.
The court's verdict comes at a delicate time for Lebanon.
The country has been rocked by a year of anti-government protests, a crippling financial crisis and COVID-19. And that was before the massive blast that tore through Beirut Port nearly two weeks ago, devastating a large portion of the capital and leading to the government’s resignation.
“The explosion that happened on August 4 introduces some kind of unpredictability to how the street is going to react to this verdict,” said Randa Slim, senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank Middle East Institute.
The four accused in the murder of Sunni politician Hariri are from Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed Shi’ite group wields both substantial political and military power in Lebanon and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. It has denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination and refuses to recognize the court’s legitimacy.
If the men are found guilty, it could increase public anger against Hezbollah in the aftermath of the recent explosion, says Lebanese American University Political Science Professor Imad Salamey.
“Many people in Lebanon right now blame Hezbollah in part or in whole, for protecting corrupt government directly or indirectly responsible over this explosion,” Salamey said from Beirut. “And much blame will be towards Hezbollah’s weapons for having imposed on the Lebanese the current president and current governments that are deeply corrupt.”
Hezbollah's domestic influence is in large part due to its substantial weapons arsenal, including explosives, rockets and missiles, which it refuses to give up or handover to the Lebanese Army. It has deployed them against Israel and has also flexed its military muscle in armed clashes against opposition militias in 2008 inside Lebanon.
The verdict could also ratchet up international pressure against the group, especially from the U.S., which might seek to impose new sanctions on Hezbollah or its allies in Lebanon.
“We are seeing increasing overt pressure being placed on Hezbollah,” said Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “In which case, the verdicts could also then add to that pressure and lead to potentially some destabilizing consequences, depending on the verdict, depending on the reaction in Lebanon, and depending on how, quite frankly, Hezbollah responds.”
But after more than a decade and about $800 million spent on the court, it is not clear whether justice will be served.
“If you compare it to other investigations in Lebanon, it is definitely the most thorough one, the most credible one, the most transparent one,” Slim said of the tribunal’s work.
But no matter the conclusion, part of the population will be reluctant to accept it.
“Nobody has any illusions that whatever verdict is issued will bring real closure,” said USIP’s Yacoubian.
Salamey adds that if the four defendants are found guilty, there are likely more powerful individuals behind them who made the decisions and gave the orders who are not facing accountability.
“So this is really partial justice being served, instead of being satisfactory and comprehensive justice,” he said.