Candles are lit near a statue of Lebanon’s assassinated former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in front of the government palace in Beirut yesterday to mark the beginning of the trial in absentia in The Hague of the four suspects accused of killing him.
LEIDSCHENDAM: Four Hezbollah members went on trial in absentia at a special UN tribunal yesterday accused of murdering Lebanon’s former premier Rafiq Hariri in a 2005 car bombing that shook the Middle East.
The trial opened in a suburb of The Hague nine years after the huge Beirut blast that killed billionaire Hariri.
A packed public gallery looked on as the proceedings began, with a large-scale model of downtown Beirut where the 2005 attack happened on a table set up before judges.
Hariri’s son Saad — who himself was prime minister from 2009 to 2011 — sat in the courtroom behind the victims’ representative.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of a terrorist attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.
Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of explosives equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of TNT as his armoured convoy passed.
The February 14, 2005 seafront blast killed 22 people including Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the STL in 2007.
Prosecutors will aim to prove the accused men’s involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shia movement Hezbollah.
A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Prosecutors allege that Badreddine and Ayyash “kept Hariri under surveillance” before the Valentine’s Day suicide bombing, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly issued a false claim of responsibility to mislead investigators.
Co-prosecutor Graeme Cameron yesterday described how different mobile phones were bought with false identities and used in networks in the run-up to the attack.
Prosecutors said that a “red group” of eight phones used until minutes before the bomb exploded was particularly important to the case.
Directly after the assassination, “the red group phones went silent. They were never used again,” Cameron said.
The powerful Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli conspiracy.