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With Hariri Verdict, Doubts Abound in Lebanon
People visit the Beirut grave of former prime minister Rafic Hariri on August 18 after the verdict in the trial for his assassination was read out. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

With Hariri Verdict, Doubts Abound in Lebanon

Although guilt was established for one individual, many Lebanese remain skeptical of UN-backed tribunal that acquitted Hizbullah, Syrian regime in assassination

After 15 years of political controversy in Lebanon over the assassination of former three-term prime minister Rafic Hariri, the UN-appointed Special Tribunal for Lebanon issued its final ruling on Tuesday – leaving the controversy in place.

The tribunal, an independent body of Lebanese and international jurists based near The Hague, found “no direct evidence” of involvement by the Syrian government or Hizbullah’s leadership in the massive explosion that killed Hariri. It did rule, however, that the assassination was carried out for political purposes.

The court, headed by Judge David Re of Australia, read a summary of the 2,600-page decision. The main point was that Hizbullah member Salim Jamil Ayyash was found guilty of committing an act of terrorism and homicide that killed Hariri and 21 others, and wounded 226.

Ayyash was one of four Hizbullah members tried in absentia. The other three – Hassan Habib Mari, Hussein Hassan Oneisi and Asad Hassan Sabra – were acquitted. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

When reached by The Media Line, a Hizbullah spokesperson in Lebanon refused to comment on the matter.

Alain Sarkis, a political researcher and analyst who works at the Nida al-Watan newspaper in Beirut, told The Media Line that people had been expecting a more decisive ruling, one finding that both Hizbullah and the Syrian government had been complicit.

“But under the court’s rules, it was forbidden to direct an accusation against a state or an organization,” he said.

Sarkis notes that the court found both Hizbullah and the Syrian regime to have benefited from the suicide truck bomb on Beirut’s seafront corniche.

“Let’s not forget that Ayyash is a leader in Hizbullah and it doesn’t make any sense that he committed the crime on his own,” he said. “In other words, indirectly, the political accusation has bypassed Hizbullah and the Syrian regime… but it’s pretty obvious that Hizbullah stands behind the assassination. Ayyash couldn’t have worked on his own.”

Let’s not forget that Ayyash is a leader in Hizbullah and it doesn’t make any sense that he committed the crime on his own

The ruling marks the first time since Lebanon gained independence in 1943 that anyone has been convicted of a political crime, Sarkis notes.

“Lebanon is known for political assassinations, as two presidents were assassinated, [René Moawad] in 1989 and [Bashir Gemayel] in 1982. However, this court is an indicator that political assassinations will not pass unpunished anymore,” he stated.

He notes that Lebanon and its people are furious and confused since the devastating August 4 Beirut port explosion, meaning clashes might be expected unless international mediation efforts headed by France succeed in calming things down.

“The Lebanese political scene will be affected, especially since Hizbullah was a primary suspect [in the case],” he said. “The country is facing a very difficult period.”

The main issue, he says, remains whether Hizbullah will continue with its “resistance” and its non-recognition of the international court, or whether it will hand over Ayyash “in order to extinguish the fire” of Sunni-Shi’ite strife.

“Ayyash had a central role in the execution of the attack and directly contributed to it,” Re told the courtroom in the Netherlands town of Leidschendam. “Ayyash intended to kill Hariri and had the required knowledge about the circumstances of the assassination mission, including that explosives were the means to be used.”

Notably, the tribunal is the first court of its kind to deal with terrorism as a stand-alone crime.

The court’s ruling did not discuss Mustafa Badr al-Din, a Hizbullah military commander indicted by the tribunal in 2011 for being the main organizer of the Hariri assassination. He was killed in Syria in 2016, allegedly by his own men.

The court stressed that the suicide bomber who blew himself up in 2005 has still not been identified.

Michael Abu Nejem, a Lebanese political researcher and analyst, believes the verdict is significant in that people have finally learned the truth, although politically it is weak.

“Only one person was found guilty, while the other accused [men] were acquitted, especially Mustafa Badr al-Din, who is a symbol of Hizbullah,” Nejem said.

He clarified that the ruling, which was based entirely on evidence from mobile phone records, opened the door to questioning the work of the court, especially since four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were detained by Lebanese authorities in 2005 in connection with Hariri’s killing and held for four years without charge.

One of the tribunal’s first acts was to order their release after ruling there was insufficient evidence to detain them.

“The ruling [on Tuesday] aroused mockery in Lebanese public opinion, which was made clear on social media,” he stated. “In general, [it] closed one stage in politics and has opened a new one, as it paves the way for further understandings between [former] prime minister Saad Hariri and Hizbullah, which backs him to head a new government.”

Raneem al-Ahmar, a political activist based in Beirut, told The Media Line she did not trust the government, the court or its ruling.

“They are ridiculous,” she stated. “How come Hizbullah wasn’t convicted of assigning the four suspects to commit the crime? In any case, I wasn’t expecting anything better.”

How come Hizbullah wasn’t convicted of assigning the four suspects to commit the crime? In any case, I wasn’t expecting anything better

Ahmar feels the powers-that-be in Lebanon are the guilty parties.

“Most free Lebanese know that Hizbullah is complicit with the Lebanese political powers, and that all of them are complicit with foreign entities, whether they be Tehran, Washington or others,” she said.

Rabee Damaj, a Lebanese freelance journalist, found it shocking that Hizbullah was acquitted.

“Maybe out of certain political considerations, especially after the Beirut [port] explosion and the fact that people are upset, they [the judges] didn’t want to enflame the street by accusing the organization,” he said, adding that the results of the trial were not that convincing.

“How could one person,” he wondered, “bring two tons of explosives on his own?”

Damaj wonders whether the true verdict can be found between the lines.

“Maybe it has a hidden message,” he speculates, “that [Hizbullah] was behind the attack.”

Ayyash’s sentence will be determined at a later date.

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