The trial in absentia of four Hezbollah members accused of murdering former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 opens at a UN-backed court on Thursday.
Nine years after the huge Beirut car bombing killed billionaire Hariri, leading to the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and three years into Syria’s own bloody civil war, prosecutors are to finally open their case in a suburb outside The Hague.
The February 14, 2005 seafront blast killed 22 people including Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2007.
The attack was initially blamed on four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who were jailed without charge from 2005 until 2009. But the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of Hezbollah.
A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his indictment that Badreddine and Ayyash “kept Hariri under surveillance” before the Valentine’s Day attack, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly issued a false claim of responsibility to mislead investigators.
Hariri, prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a van full of explosives equivalent to 2.5 tons of TNT detonated as his armored convoy passed.
A video was then delivered to the Beirut office of pan-Arab satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera in which a man “falsely claimed to be a suicide bomber on behalf of a fictional fundamentalist group called ‘Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria’,” prosecutors said.
They will aim to prove the four men’s involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, Oneissi’s court-appointed lawyer, told AFP that “there is a huge disproportion between the prosecution and the defense’s means, time and financial resources.”
“We must defend the accused, who are not even here and without having had any contact with them.”
The STL initially sparked fierce debate in Lebanon, sharply divided into the camp led by Hezbollah and its rivals in the March 14 movement, set up in the wake of Hariri’s assassination and led by his son Saad, a former prime minister who is to attend the trial’s opening.
The powerful Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli conspiracy.