Divided Lebanon prepares for verdict in Hariri assassination

Four low-ranking members of the Shia Muslim Hezbollah political party are accused of killing the former prime minister and 21 others in a massive bombing in 2005

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon will on Tuesday hand down its verdict in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, against a backdrop of extreme division, political and economic crisis in the country.

Four low-ranking members of the Shia Muslim Hezbollah political party and militia are accused of killing Hariri and 21 other people in a massive truck bombing.

Hariri's son Saad, who twice served as prime minister after his father's death, will be present for the verdict in the windowless, basement courtroom in the former headquarters of the Dutch intelligence service in The Hague. Marwan Hamadeh, a Druze leader who barely survived a similar assassination attempt, will also attend.

The tribunal last year extended its mandate to include attacks in 2004 and 2005 on Hamadeh and two other Lebanese politicians. One of the accused, Salim Ayyash, is wanted in connection with the three other attacks.

The three other accused are Hassan Merhi, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra. They have been tried in absentia, and will be retried if they are ever apprehended.

The evidence is comprised mainly of cell phone data which showed the four men tracked Hariri closely for months before his assassination. They were nearby when a suicide bomber crashed into Hariri’s motorcade as it passed the St George Hotel on the Beirut seafront on February 14th, 2005. Their cell phones went silent immediately after the explosion.

A fifth accused, Mustafa Badreddine, headed Hezbollah's military wing and was a close associate of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. He was believed to have organised the attack, but the case against him was closed when the tribunal said it received "sufficient proof" of Badredinne's death in Syria in 2016.

Lebanon never sought to arrest the accused. Nasrallah vowed that the United Nations, which established the tribunal, would not catch them in 300 years.

Two weeks ago, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in unsafe conditions exploded in Beirut port, killing more than 170 people and wounding 6,500 others.

‘Impunity can end’

Although this month’s explosion claimed eight times as many lives and caused far greater damage than Hariri’s assassination, the images of destruction, the effects of the blast and wounds of the victims were similar. Both catastrophes highlighted the absence of leadership and government authority in Lebanon. And both led to calls for an international investigation, which in both cases was opposed by Hezbollah.

The Lebanese have been divided in their attitude towards Hariri, who was a Sunni Muslim, and the tribunal from the beginning. They will continue to be so once the verdict is handed down.

"It's incredibly important, because it's the first time in the history of Lebanon or the Arab world that a tribunal has been set up to try assassins and killers of civilians," says Rima Tarabay, who was press adviser to both Rafik and Saad Hariri. "The mere establishment of the tribunal shows impunity can end, that rule of law is possible."

It was considered miraculous that Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the protector of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, accepted the UNSC vote which established the tribunal in 2009. The tribunal has been a constant source of tension between Russia and the US. France has been its staunchest defender.

Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, dismissed the verdict in advance. “For us, it will be as if the decision was not announced,” he said on August 14th. “If our brothers are unjustly convicted, as we expect, we will continue to believe in their innocence.”

Officially, Lebanon's Maronite Catholic president Michel Aoun supports the tribunal. Lebanon paid half of its budget. But Aoun, a former artillery general who once fought Syria and Hezbollah struck an alliance with them to become head of state. His followers are already working behind the scenes to discredit the verdict.

Eleven years

The tribunal initially cast a broad net, seeking evidence against Assad. In his last interview, Hariri told this correspondent how Assad threatened to “break Lebanon over [Hariri’s] head.” Over time, it narrowed its focus to the actual perpetrators of the truck bombing.

“How can anyone be satisfied with a tribunal that has taken 11 years, cost hundreds of millions of euros and results in a judgment that judges no one?” said a source loyal to Aoun. “I’m still not sure that those being judged are actually the guilty parties.”

Hariri's critics claim that corruption thrived under his government and that Solidère, the property company he created to rebuild downtown Beirut, destroyed much of the city's heritage. Hariri, the son of a citrus farmer from the southern port town of Saida, became a billionaire in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia.

Tarabay believes Lebanon would not be mired in economic and political crisis if Hariri had lived. “Rafik Hariri’s assassination was a total cataclysm for Lebanon,” she says.