Four members of Hezbollah will go on trial in absentia on Thursday at a UN-backed tribunal for the 2005 killing of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, AFP reports.
Nine years after a massive Beirut car bombing killed Hariri, leading to the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and three years into Syria’s own bloody civil war, prosecutors are finally to open their case in a suburb of The Hague.
The seafront bombing killed 22 people besides Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2007.
Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against four Hezbollah members: Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37.
A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted in October and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.
The STL is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of a terrorist attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.
Interpol in the past issued a “red notice” for the suspects, but so far none have been arrested. Hezbollah has denied any responsibility for Hariri’s murder, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy, vowing that none of the suspects will be arrested.
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 bombing, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly issued a false claim of responsibility to mislead investigators.
Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of 2.5 tons of TNT 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, according to AFP.
They will aim to prove the four men’s involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
The trial of the suspects may increase sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which have flared up since Hezbollah openly intervened in the conflict in neighboring Syria alongside President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces.
Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut was hit by two car bombings this summer, one of which killed 27 people. Bombings in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli in late August also killed 45 people, and ongoing fighting in that city between rival militias supporting different sides in the Syrian civil war have killed scores more.
More recently, two suicide bombers killed 25 people in an attack on Iran's Beirut embassy.
As well, Syria and Hezbollah have been blamed for the December 27 assassination of former finance minister Mohamed Chatah, an aide to Hariri’s son Saad, in another downtown Beirut bombing. Hezbollah has denied involvement.