A senior member of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been convicted of helping orchestrate the 2005 assassination of the country’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri, after a five-year international trial in the Hague.
The judges exonerated two other members of the organisation and ruled they had found no links to Hezbollah’s leadership. The verdicts were met with surprise in Beirut, where supporters of Hezbollah were expecting all three named members to be convicted.
Opponents of the group decried the result as an “enormous disappointment” and claimed the UN-funded special tribunal for Lebanon had failed to get to the bottom of a plot that, until the catastrophic explosion on 4 August, had been the biggest and most consequential event to rock Lebanon since its modern state was founded in 1943.
The tribunal found Salim Ayyash had led the operation to kill Hariri with a giant car bomb on the Beirut waterfront. It said there was insufficient evidence to link Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra to a charge of delivering a false claim of responsibility to a broadcaster.
Another Hezbollah figure, the group’s former military commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in Syria in May 2016, was initially accused of being the link to Ayyash, who was found to be the leader of the cell on the day Hariri was killed. The pair were linked by cellphone data pieced together by a former intelligence officer, Wissam Eid, who was also killed by a car bomb in 2008 as he left his office.
“The trial chamber cannot verify that Mr Badreddine was at the peak of the conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to murder Mr Hariri,” the tribunal ruling said, finding that numerous calls had taken place between the pair in the lead-up to the assassination.
The chaos and vacuum that followed Hariri’s death laid the foundation for the next 15 turbulent years, during which an enfeebled country withered under the weight of political decay, clientelism and hegemony.
A war with Israel in 2006 was another blow, as was a conflict in Syria from 2011, then revolution, social stagnation, economic implosion and a crumbling regional order, which can all be partly traced to the violent death of the man credited by many for leading a trail – albeit unsteady – from the ruin of civil war.
Throughout that period Hezbollah’s influence in the country grew and up to a dozen politicians and journalists opposed to the group and to Syria’s influence were assassinated in car bombs or shootings. Ayyash, allegedly a prominent member of the group, was indicted in September last year for three other assassinations in 2004 and 2005.
The trial process and verdict had been seen as a potential watershed moment in Lebanon, where killings are almost always carried out with impunity and regional factors dictating events usually remain opaque.
“The attack was intended to resonate across Lebanon and the region. The intended effects were not just confined to Mr Hariri’s supporters … it was designed to destablise Lebanon generally,” the ruling said.
The verdict was met with near empty streets in the Lebanese capital and no sign of unrest. Hezbollah had earlier said it would ignore the tribunal’s finding and had last night urged its supporters to avoid known flashpoints in the city.
“Who would have thought they could exonerate the Hezbollah leadership, but convict one of their main members?” said Majid Yarmout. “Do they not know how things work after 15 years?”
Speaking after the verdict was delivered, Saad Hariri, the dead man’s son and also a former Lebanese prime minister, said: “We all knew the truth today. The verdict sends a message to the killers that the era of political crimes is over.”
As Rafik Hariri started post-war projects, such as the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown and airport, he developed a name as a nation-builder and formidable tycoon. By the early 2000s, he had made the global rich list and become one of Lebanon’s most popular figures. His appeal crossed civil war divides and some of his wealth trickled down to the Lebanese street.
Hariri became friendly with the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, buying him a pair of boots at one point, and deftly navigating the treacherous maze of the country’s politics, which were consolidating around sectarian fiefdoms and a brash new oligarchy carving up zones of influence with the ruthlessness of mafia-like clans. Hariri had become a linchpin of the system.
There were pitfalls, though; and by the time of his death dealing with the neighbours, and even bigger patrons, had become the main one. A move to lead Lebanon away from Syria’s tutelage and on some sort of path to US-backed sovereignty was not well received by Damascus, where an August 2004 meeting revealed an irreparable rift between Hariri and the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Six months later a car bomb killed Hariri and 21 others on the Beirut waterfront, a mile from the scene of the port explosion earlier this month.
An international tribunal was formed to investigate an assassination that Lebanon could not look into itself. A UN investigative process locked up four Lebanese generals who it alleged were involved in the plot, but they were released in 2009 for lack of evidence.
“Due process has been taken to the extremes here,” said Mustafa Khairallah. “Some people will find this verdict perverse. There was just enough to make it uncomfortable for Hezbollah, but also enough for them to claim it didn’t hit them hard. They had been discrediting the trial for many years and felt their job was done.”