A U.N.-appointed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a member of the Hezbollah militant group of homicide and terrorism in the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri 15 years ago.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon's Presiding Judge David Re said that Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim, was found guilty as a co-conspirator of five charges in the suicide bombing on February 14, 2005 that killed Hariri and 21 others in Beirut. Another 226 people were wounded in the blast.
The trial of Ayyash and three other Hezbollah members was held in absentia. Ayyash is not expected to serve any of his sentence since Hezbollah is unlikely to turn him over. The tribunal acquitted the three others — Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, now known as Hassan Issa, and Hassan Habib Merhi — of all charges in the case.
The verdict, coming just two weeks after the devastating Beirut explosion, is likely to inflame tensions by stirring up painful recollections of the attack on Hariri, which occurred as his motorcade drove past Beirut's waterfront St. Georges Hotel. Hariri's assassination sparked the Cedar Revolution, a popular movement that led Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon later that year.
Re said as he read aloud from a 2,600-page ruling that Ayyash "had a central role in the execution of the attack and directly contributed to it," and that he "intended to kill" Hariri. Judges heard from almost 300 witnesses over more than 400 days of hearings. A sentencing hearing will be held later.
Politically motivated terrorism
The tribunal, which began operating in March 2009, is headquartered outside The Hague, Netherlands, and has an office in Beirut. It was created under the authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution in 2007 and operates according to Lebanon's criminal laws and international procedures. Its mandate has since been renewed.
The trial got underway in the Hariri case in 2014. Judges concluded Hezbollah's leadership and Syria had "motives to eliminate" Hariri and some of his allies who wanted to reduce the influence of Syria and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon — but found no evidence of their involvement in the attack.
The tribunal, however, declared the assassination to be a clear act of politically motivated terrorism. Re said the most compelling evidence against the suspects came from their mobile phones. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said last week, however, the four members charged in the case were not guilty, and that, no matter what the verdicts were, "for us it will be as if they were never issued."
The verdicts arrived nearly two weeks later than planned due to the August 4 blast of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut's port that killed about 180 people and injured more than 6,000 others. The tribunal's hearing began with a minute of silence to honor the victims of that blast and their families.