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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Saad Hariri calls for justice at Hague tribunal into father's assassination

More than a decade after Rafiq Hariri's death, the killing remains a fault line in Lebanese politics

Saad Hariri speaks to the press after the closings arguments at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague. EPA
Saad Hariri speaks to the press after the closings arguments at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague. EPA

Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said justice will prevail as he made an appearance on Tuesday at the international tribunal into the murder of his father and 21 others more than a decade ago.

The assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri with a huge car bomb in downtown Beirut in 2005 marked a turning point in Lebanon’s modern history, and cemented dividing lines that still exist today.

Four Hezbollah members were indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2011, two years after it was set up to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice, and a fifth was added in 2013.

Mr Hariri was present in court for opening remarks in the prosecution’s closing arguments to the trial. A verdict is not expected for some months.

“This is a difficult day because Rafiq Hariri is not with us,” he told reporters outside the proceedings.

"We are holding on to the truth, to know who is behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and all the martyrs who fell defending Lebanon. With justice, the killer will be handed his punishment,” he said earlier.

He arrived at The Hague late on Monday with two cabinet allies and Bassem Sabeh, a former minister and confidant to both Mr Hariri and his father.

Rafiq Hariri was killed in a February 14, 2005, bombing along with 21 others when explosives hidden in a van blew up as his motorcade travelled along a street in Beirut.

A UN commission blamed the Syrian government for the assassination, while a Canadian investigation implicated Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Seven years after a confidential indictment was filed and 13 years after the international investigation into the assassination began, the STL will wrap up and prepare to issue a verdict.

As the younger Mr Hariri sat expressionless in the courtroom on Tuesday, Nigel Povoas, counsel for the prosecution, opened by describing the aftermath of the attack.

“The scene was plunged into darkness and utter horror. Lebanon itself was plunged into darkness and horror,” he said.

“That is exactly what was intended by the attack. The targeting of a political figure of such eminence and stature, and the sheer magnitude of the explosion in the middle of Beirut, in the middle of the day, was calculated to send a message of terror.”

Mr Povoas said the Syrian regime “was at the heart of the conspiracy to assassinate Rafiq Hariri” and that it carried out the attack through its ally Hezbollah.

Outlining a motive, he said Hariri was “perceived of as being a proxy of western interests who would harness his political power to win elections, form a majority and upset the status quo by loosening the grip of the Syrian regime on Lebanon”.

The site of the lorry bombing that killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 bystanders, in central Beirut, on February 14, 2005. AFP
The site of the bombing that killed the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in central Beirut on Februrary 14, 2005. AFP

The killing of Hariri, the country's leading Sunni politician, provoked protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon and forced Damascus to withdraw troops within weeks.

The events that followed consolidated Lebanon’s political camps into groupings that were largely defined by their relationship to Syria: The March 14 alliance, led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and named for the day of the largest protest against Syrian rule, and the March 8 alliance, originally led by Hezbollah and the Amal movement.

The five suspects are Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra - who were indicted in 2011 - and Hassan Merhi. They have never been arrested. Badreddine was killed in Syria in 2016 and the proceedings against him halted the same year but the whereabouts of the other men are unknown.

Mr Povoas said the evidence against the men constituted a “compelling and coherent picture of their guilt”.

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Read more on STL:

Lebanon's Special Tribunal was supposed to represent an end to impunity for crimes

Aftermath of former Lebanon security chief's combative special tribunal testimony

Probe into Hariri’s assassination to focus on Al Assad

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The prosecution’s case has largely been built on telecoms data they claim show the location of the suspects throughout the planning phase of the assassination as they trailed Hariri in the weeks before his killing.

The court has also heard the story of Sami Issa, the fast-living Christian playboy jeweller who — unknown to neighbours and friends — was an alter ego for Badreddine while he put together the killing of Hariri.

In contrast to the life of parties, cars and drugs that Mr Issa engaged in, Badreddine was also one of Hezbollah’s senior commanders, believed to have helped oversee the party’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war to support the government of Bashar Al Assad, and was the brother-in-law of Hezbollah founding member and military commander Imad Moughniyah.

The defence teams, unable to speak to their clients or provide alibis, have largely built their rebuttal on questioning the accuracy of the telecoms data or arguing what the defence has alleged as evidence is circumstantial.

One of the issues they have highlighted is that much of the geolocation points to areas around southern Beirut that just over a year after the killing were largely flattened in the 34-day Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. The defence argues that the level of destruction renders much of the data hard to interpret as the landscape has changed significantly.

Rafiq Hariri at a parliamentary session in Beirut, on September 3, 2004. AFP
A September 3, 2004 photo of then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in parliament. AFP

In the politically significant case for the small eastern Mediterranean country, nothing about the STL has been straightforward. Lebanese journalists have been charged for publishing details of witnesses who would only speak anonymously given the danger to their lives and the very telecoms data being used by the prosecution is itself steeped in blood.

The young Captain Wissam Eid of the Internal Security Forces Information Branch is the man largely credited with uncovering the links between networks of phones used in planning and execution of the killing.

The investigator with a flair for data analysis was, however, assassinated for helping the international investigators. Blown up in a car bomb as he drove into Beirut in January 2008, the attack was not the first attempt on his life. It also came after his boss, Samir Chehadeh, fled to Canada after he survived an assassination attempt.

The tribunal is considered the first attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of political violence in a country that had seen dozens of assassinations and targeted killings over the years. Its supporters see it as essential for ending impunity for such killings and enforcing the rule of law; its detractors say it is a western plot to destabilise Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria.

Over nine years the tribunal has heard from more than 300 witnesses, seen more than 3,000 exhibits and over 144,000 pages of written evidence. For some time, the proceedings have rumbled on quietly in the background.

But its re-emergence today as it nears conclusion comes at a difficult time for Lebanon and the region. The country is in political gridlock and without a government as leaders squabble over the allocation of cabinet posts. The Middle East as a whole has been transformed since 2009, when the tribunal was established.

Speaking last month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused his political rivals of using the tribunal to put pressure on the group, and issued a stern warning.

“Some March 14 circles are saying that the main reason behind delaying the formation of the government is that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will issue its ruling in September and that there will be a new situation in the country to capitalise on,” Mr Nasrallah said.

“The STL does not mean anything to us at all and its rulings are of no value regardless whether they are condemnation or acquittal rulings. To those betting on the tribunal: do not play with fire. Period.”

Richard Hall reported from Beirut