UN tribunal convicts Hezbollah member in Hariri assassination case

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands: A UN-backed court convicted a member of the Hezbollah group of conspiring to kill former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a 2005 bombing.

Hariri had close ties with the West and Gulf Arab allies but was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.

While the court found no evidence of direct involvement by the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government, the judges said the killing was clearly a politically motivated act of terrorism.

Delivering their verdict over several hours, they found the main defendant Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty on all counts and said prosecutors had established his affiliation with Hezbollah.

“Mr. Ayyash had a central role in the execution of the attack and directly contributed to it,” said Presiding Judge David Re. “Mr. Ayyash intended to kill Mr. Hariri and had the required knowledge about the circumstances of the assassination mission, including that explosives were the means to be used,” he said.

The judges said there was insufficient evidence against three other men charged as accomplices in the February 14, 2005 bombing and they were acquitted.

Hariri’s son Saad reacted to the verdict by vowing he would not rest until punishment was served. He said it was time for the Hezbollah movement to assume responsibility. “Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today,” he said. “I repeat: we will not rest until punishment is served.”

Hezbollah has denied any involvement in Hariri’s killing. Its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday he was not concerned with the trial and that if any members of the group were convicted, it would stand by their innocence.

Hariri’s assassination plunged Lebanon into its worst crisis since the war, setting the stage for years of confrontation between rival political forces.

All four defendants were tried in absentia. Ayyash was formally convicted of a terrorist attack and the homicide of Hariri and 21 others. He will be sentenced at later hearings and could face life in prison.

The judges noted that days before he was killed, Hariri endorsed a call for Syria to end its then-occupation of Lebanon. The investigation and trial of the four alleged Hezbollah members has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. DNA evidence showed that the blast that killed Hariri was carried out by a male suicide bomber who was never identified.

Prosecutors used cell phone records to argue the men on trial — Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi — carefully monitored Hariri’s movements in the months leading up to the attack to time it and to put forward a fake claim of responsibility as a diversion.

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