A 57-year-old member of the Lebanese Shia militia, Hizbullah, has received five life sentences in absentia for his "central role" in the 2005 assassination of the country's former premier, Rafik Hariri – which judges described as "a politically motivated act of terrorism".
In an unusual move, David Re, the presiding judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, sitting in The Hague, said that Friday's judgment would trigger the immediate issuing of an Interpol "red notice" identifying Salim Ayyash as a high-priority fugitive sought by 194 police forces worldwide.
Mr Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire with close ties to the West and to Gulf Arab states, was killed by a suicide bomber in a truck packed with explosives on St Valentine's Day 2005, as his heavily protected convoy drove along the Beirut seafront. He was about to seek re-election and form a sixth cabinet.
Ayyash was sentenced to life on each of five charges: conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, committing a terrorist attack using explosives, the premeditated homicide of Mr Hariri, the homicide of 21 others, and the attempted homicide of 226 people injured in the blast – which had the explosive force of about 1,000kg of TNT.
“This was a political attack intended to spread terror in Lebanon, and it did,” said Judge Re. “Ayyash was a single part in a complex network, but even so, mobile phone data show his was a central role as a co-perpetrator. The court could find no mitigating circumstances.”
Educated at the American University of Beirut, Ayyash was convicted by the court in August, when three co-defendants – also allegedly Hizbullah members – were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.
A fourth co-defendant, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, a senior Hizbullah commander, was killed in shelling near Damascus airport in 2016.
At the August hearing the court stressed there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Hariri’s assassination was linked to “a larger regional political conspiracy”. At the sentencing hearing on Friday, however, the judges, while not resiling from that view, went further.
Judge Janet Nosworthy said the aim of the attack had been "to remove a political opponent". There had been a number of state actors in the region, but "the one with most to gain" had been Syria –with whom Hizbullah had well-established regional links.
Speaking from Beirut, Judge Micheline Brady said: "Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy. Politicians are removed from government at the ballot box, not by guns and bombs. This was an attack on democracy – an attack which undermined the foundations of the Lebanese state."
Imposing the five life terms, Judge Re also recommended the establishment of a Lebanese national compensation scheme for the victims of crime, the establishment of a separate trust fund for victims associated with the Hariri case, and the provision of psychological support to victims.
He added: “Ayyash has been shielded from justice since 2011. Comments by the Hizbullah secretary general allow strong inference as to who is responsible. I urge the Lebanese authorities: those shielding him should surrender him now.”