It was the explosion that shook Beirut, 15 years before another one levelled entire neighbourhoods of the city. On Tuesday, an international court finally delivered something like justice for the first blast, finding a single Hezbollah member guilty of carrying out the 2005 car bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.
It was a verdict that satisfied few, while adding to the already sky-high tensions in Lebanon. The country’s deep political and economic crises were exacerbated by a massive Aug. 4 explosion in the port of Beirut, which killed 180 people and made 300,000 others homeless.
The more recent disaster is believed to have been caused by an unattended stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Many Lebanese blame Hezbollah – which is widely believed to have used the port for smuggling and storing weapons, and which wields wide influence over a government that ignored repeated warnings about the impending disaster – for both explosions.
The United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon ruled that one Hezbollah member, 57-year-old Salim Ayyash, who was tried in absentia, was guilty of five charges related to the assassination of Mr. Hariri. It was an act that rattled this country to its core, and helped ignite sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
But The Hague-based tribunal acquitted three other suspects, and ruled there was not enough evidence to link either the Hezbollah leadership or the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the crime.
Mr. Hariri, who was backed by Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, was killed as he was lobbying for an end to Syria’s 29-year military presence in Lebanon. Following the assassination, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests that forced the Syrian army’s withdrawal from the country a few months later.
But Hezbollah has remained, and has tightened its grip on this deeply divided country. Hezbollah is backed by Iran, and its supporters are almost uniformly Shia Muslims; Mr. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician.
The 57-year-old Mr. Ayyash, who has yet to be sentenced, is believed to still be at large in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Lebanon. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has dismissed the special tribunal as a tool of Western powers, and has said the group will ignore the verdict.
Speaking in The Hague after Tuesday’s ruling, Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, called for Hezbollah to hand over Mr. Ayyash. “Nobody should expect any more sacrifices from us. We have sacrificed what is dearest to us. … Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today,” he said. “We will not rest until punishment is served.”
There was palpable tension in Beirut, where a state of emergency has been in place since shortly after the port explosion. Soldiers drove in long convoys, circling through empty streets that would normally be clogged with traffic.
Anti-government protesters, who had planned to march Tuesday toward the official residence of President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, called off their demonstration amid concerns that emotions were already too high in the country. “We’re trying not to be hot-headed,” said Karl Karam, a key organizer of the protests, which are affiliated with none of the sectarian political blocs.
Instead, a crowd of several hundred of Mr. Hariri’s supporters gathered at his tomb in the centre of the city to listen to the verdict as it was read out over loudspeakers that were mounted on top of a white van. The conviction of a single Hezbollah member did little to satisfy their desire for justice. “The person convicted belongs to an organization with a very strict hierarchy,” said 29-year-old May el-Masri, a member of Future Youth, a pro-Hariri movement. The conviction of one member, she said, means “Hezbollah is accused.”
The court didn’t go quite as far, saying only that “the evidence also established that Mr. Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah.”
In a 2,600-page verdict that took some five hours to read, the judges said they had been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Ayyash was the owner of one of six mobile phones that were critical in ordering and co-ordinating the attack. The owners of the six mobile phones “had access to what could be described as ‘military grade explosives,’ " and had “knowingly agreed to murder Mr. Hariri,” the court found. “They are thus co-conspirators.”
However, the tribunal ruled that the evidence against three other suspects – Assad Sabra, Hassan Habib Merhi and Hassan Oneissi – was “insufficient” to prove they were among the users of the other mobile phones.
Charges against a fifth suspect, Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander, were dropped after he was killed while fighting in Syria in 2016.
“We acknowledge that this verdict may not bring the closure desired by many in Lebanon. However, today’s verdict upholds the principle of accountability and serves as a small but significant step forward in the continued pursuit for democracy, justice and security in Lebanon,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement. Ottawa contributed $8-million to the special tribunal in the 11 years since it was established, and several RCMP officers were seconded to the investigation.
Presiding Judge David Re said the tribunal – a panel of 15 Lebanese and international judges that made its base in the Netherlands for security reasons – had determined that “Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies.” But, Judge Re added, “there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement.”
Mohammed Obeidi, a political analyst seen as close to the Hezbollah leadership, said the tribunal was wise to focus on the guilt or innocence of the accused individuals, rather than the Hezbollah leadership. “This is very important, because that means they are not going to antagonize the political and security system in Lebanon. This is not important for Hezbollah – this is important for Lebanon.”
The verdict was a disappointment for those who believe Hezbollah is responsible not only for the killing of Mr. Hariri, but also a string of other assassinations that have targeted pro-Western political figures.
“There is a serial killer in Lebanon, made up of Hezbollah and the Syrian machine. I escaped, but many died,” Marwan Hamadeh, a former cabinet minister and political ally of Mr. Hariri’s, told The Globe and Mail before the verdict was announced. Mr. Hamadeh survived a 2004 car bombing that killed his bodyguard. Mr. Ayyash also stands accused of that attack, in a separate case before the same special tribunal.
Nayla Tueni, the chief executive officer of the an-Nahar newspaper, said Tuesday’s verdict and the form of accountability it brought were nonetheless important for Lebanon, especially in the wake of the port explosion.
“But I am worried, of course. I am worried every second in this phase about what will happen,” said Ms. Tueni, whose father Gebran was killed in another car bomb, 10 months after Mr. Hariri’s death. “We do not know what price we Lebanese will pay.”
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