By Arab News
A UN-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a Hezbollah member of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Salim Jamil Ayyash was found guilty as a co-conspirator of five charges linked to his involvement in the truck bombing.
Three others were acquitted of being involved in the attack on Hariri’s motorcade that killed 21 others. Judges said there was insufficient evidence to show they had been accomplices.
Judges said they were “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt” that the prosecution had proved the guilt of Ayyash on all counts charged. He was found guilty of committing a terrorist attack and of homicide.
“The evidence also established that Mr. Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah,” said Judge Micheline Braidy.
The killing of Hariri, who had close ties with the West and Arab Gulf states sent shockwaves through the region.
Suspicions over who killed him fell immediately on Syria, which at that time dominated Lebanon, and Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“Mr Ayyash had a central role in the execution of the attack and directly contributed to it,” Presiding Judge David Re said, as he read the 2,600-page verdict.
“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.
Ayyash possessed “one of six mobiles used by the assassination team,” the tribunal concluded in finding him guilty of committing a terrorist attack.
The judges said while they had found no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part in the Feb. 14 attack, there was a clear motive.
“The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and his political allies, however, there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement,” Judge Re said.
Hariri’s son Saad, who after his father’s death also served as prime minister, said he accepted the tribunal’s verdict and added that it showed Hezbollah was responsible.
“Today, the party that should make sacrifices is Hezbollah,” he said, after attending the court for the verdict. “It is clear that the network responsible is from its ranks.
“We will not rest until the punishment is carried out.”
Another son, Bahaa, said the court confirmed that the assassination was a “political act undertaken by those whose activities my father was threatening, after he had decided that Syria must leave our country.”
“The court was clear about the political background of those involved and other players with motive, local operational capability and experience of this kind of action.”
The four defendants were tried in absentia and their whereabouts is unknown.
The investigation and trial in absentia has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. Sentencing will be carried out later though Ayyash could face up to life imprisonment.
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.
Court-appointed lawyers said there was no physical evidence linking the four to the crime and they should be acquitted
The verdict comes as Lebanon is still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 178 people this month and from a devastating economic meltdown.
The government, which is now strongly influenced by militant Hezbollah, stood down after the furious public blamed officials for the storage of vast quantities of ammonium nitrate at Beirut Port.
Hariri’s assassination plunged Lebanon into a similar level of crisis that set the stage for years of confrontation between rival political forces.
Hezbollah 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.