The Special Tribunal for Lebanon based in the Hague has found one of the four members of the Iran-backed militia and political party Hezbollah guilty of the 2005 car bomb assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The verdict was delayed by two weeks due to the catastrophic explosion on August 4 in Beirut that killed nearly 200 and injured more than 6,000.
Only Salim Ayyash was found guilty of assassination by truck bomb. The other defendants, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra, and Hassan Merhi were acquitted of a barrage of charges including conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack and international homicide with explosives. A fifth man, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in Syria in 2016, after which charges against him were dropped.
Presiding Judge David Re read from a 2,600 page ruling with more than 13,000 footnotes. He said that neither the leadership of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, was guilty of the murder, nor was the government of Syria, which had been accused of masterminding the plan by many Lebanese who launched violent protests that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country shortly after the assassination.
At the time Hariri was killed, he was Lebanon's most prominent Sunni politician. In delivering the verdicts, Re said that while “Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies,” there was “no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri's murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it.”
The long-awaited verdict comes against the backdrop of a nation on its knees as Lebanon struggles to cope with the massive explosion that ripped apart Beirut and killed nearly 200 people and left a quarter of a million homeless. Just what detonated 2,750 metric tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate squirreled away in an unguarded port warehouse is at the heart of an investigation that now includes American investigators who arrived last weekend. But the blame for why it happened is pinned on the government, which ignored warnings that the stockpile could “destroy Beirut” for six years.
Much has changed in the geopolitical landscape since the 2005 attack. At the time, many Lebanese blamed Syria for the massacre, which set off widespread protests that led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces who had been in Lebanon for more than three decades. Both the Syrian government and Hezbollah political party and militant group deny involvement. The court in the Hague was not approved by the Lebanese parliament, and many will not accept the decision.
Hariri's son, Saad, followed his father’s footsteps, leading a pro-Western coalition and serving three terms as prime minister, resigning in January after protests against economic strife crippled the nation. He led the government that ignored pleas to secure the ammonium nitrate that blew up two weeks ago.
Former consultant for the defense Omar Nashabe said recently that the trial means little. “This tribunal is doomed to fail because of the lack of consensus,” Nashabe said.
Writing for the Carnegie Middle East Center, Michael Young said the verdicts “will seem like little more than a postscript to an out-of-print book.” He said that those who allegedly carried out the investigation “risk almost nothing.”
"The U.N. investigation was glowingly referred to once as a mechanism to end impunity,” Young wrote. “It has proven to be exactly the contrary.”
What makes the verdict in such an important historic case so poignant today is that in 2005, the attack that also injured 220 people is considered a watershed moment for Lebanon that "changed everything" at the time, including all the missteps that led to the recent explosion that injured more than 6,000.
In 2011, when the indictments were formally handed down, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said they never would be handed over, even in “300 years,” instead calling the investigation and trial a “plot” by Israel and the U.S. as an “an aggression against us and our holy warriors.”
The international trial has been divisive. Jamil Sayyed, the head of Lebanese security at the time of the attack who was detained for four years over potential involvement, told Al Jazeera this week that the international investigation was a “dirty political game” from day one.
Also speaking to Al Jazeera, lawyer Peter Haynes, who represents victims in the Hariri assassination case, instead says the international probe “identified plainly criminal behavior in the same way many international investigations do, and I don't think it is in any way illegitimate.”
The delivery of this delayed justice for what was, until two weeks ago, the deadliest explosion to rock Beirut this millennium, is lost on no one, especially the thousands of Lebanese who feel forgotten.