LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands: A UN-backed tribunal began handing down its long-awaited verdict Tuesday on the 2005 murder of Lebanon’s former premier Rafic Hariri, opening with a minute’s silence for victims of a huge explosion that devastated Beirut two weeks ago.
Four alleged members of the powerful Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands over a suicide bombing in the Lebanese capital 15 years ago that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.
The judgment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was initially scheduled for August 7, but was postponed until Tuesday after a colossal fertiliser warehouse explosion in Beirut on August 4 that killed 177 people and deepened political tensions in the country.
Presiding judge David Re called on the court to observe a “minute’s silence to remember the victims of this catastrophe, those who lost their lives, those who were maimed or injured, their families, those who were made homeless.”
Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former Lebanese prime minister, was in the heavily-secured court for the reading out of the judgment, which was expected to take several hours.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has refused to hand over the four defendants, and the case relies almost entirely on mobile phone records with prosecutors allege prove the plot to kill Hariri.
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 Hariri’s motorcade.
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.
– ‘Act of terrorism’ –
The judgment harks back to an event that changed the face of the Middle East, with Hariri’s assassination triggering a wave of demonstrations that pushed Syrian forces out of Lebanon after 30 years.
Billed as the world’s first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, the UN Security Council agreed in 2007 to set up the court and it opened its doors in 2009, although the trial itself did not formally start until 2014.
It has cost at least $600 million to operate.
The four defendants face charges including the “intentional homicide” of Hariri and 21 others, attempted homicide of 226 people wounded in the bombing, and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
“The attack was an act of terrorism that was designed to spread fear among the Lebanese population. It was committed for political and not personal reasons,” judge Re said as he began reading out the judgement.
“The successful attack was carefully planned and implemented.”
Prosecutors said that in the months before the attack four networks of mobile phones — dubbed the yellow, red and blue networks — followed Hariri as he travelled around Lebanon.
The judge said prosecutors had presented a “vast quantity of evidence” including 269 prosecution witnesses.
The four suspects face life imprisonment if convicted, although sentencing will be carried out at a later date. If the four are convicted and not present, the court will issue arrest warrants, 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.
However Nasrallah last week warned the powerful movement would ignore the verdict by the court based in Leidschendam just outside The Hague, saying “we do not feel concerned by the STL’s decisions.”
The alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was indicted by the court but is believed to have been killed in the Damascus area in May 2016.
– ‘Severe threat’ –
Prosecutors said during the trial that Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a “severe threat” to Syrian control of the country, allied to Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Hariri was Lebanon’s Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria’s role as power-broker in the country.
Observers have voiced fears that the verdict, whichever way it goes, could spark violence on the streets in Lebanon when it is announced.
Since its inception “the court has been widely contested,” said Karim Bitar, professor of international relations in Paris and Beirut.
“Some have questioned its legitimacy, some have questioned whether this justice would not be selective,” he said.
Tuesday’s verdict comes as thousands of Beirut’s residents have expressed anger at the authorities after the blast, triggered by a warehouse fire that set off large amounts of stored ammonium nitrate.
The disaster led to the Lebanese government’s resignation and compounded Lebanon’s severe economic crisis.