Hezbollah was officially accused of the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, on Thursday, as four of its members went on trial in absentia at a special UN tribunal, AFP reported.
The four are accused of murdering Hariri in a 2005 car bombing that shook the Middle East.
The trial opened in a suburb outside The Hague, nine years after the huge Beirut blast that killed billionaire Hariri and just hours after another deadly car bombing in a Hezbollah stronghold near war-ravaged Syria.
Hariri's son Saad, who himself was prime minister 2009-2011, was also in court as the repeatedly-delayed proceedings began, sitting behind the victims' representative.
He told AFP in an interview that through the trial, "you see justice, finally finding its way in a country like Lebanon."
"For the past 50 years we've had assassination after assassination with no justice, impunity was there, the norm. Today we see, that no, there is a chance where we will see justice finally in Lebanon," said the younger Hariri.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also welcomed the opening of the trial, stressing "the vital importance of combating impunity for the long-term stability and security of Lebanon."
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (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.
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 explosives equivalent to 2.5 tos of TNT as his armored convoy passed.
The February 14, 2005 seafront blast killed 22 people as well as Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the STL in 2007.
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.
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 has dismissed the tribunal as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in the past vowed that none of the suspects will be arrested.
Prosecutors will aim to prove the accused men's involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack, reported AFP.
"The attackers killed innocent bystanders, a student, a hotel worker, a cousin, a father, a brother, friends," chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his opening statement.
"Clearly their aim was not only to ensure that the target was killed, but to send a terrifying message to cause panic among the population of Beirut and Lebanon," he said, showing the court a graphic photograph taken shortly after the blast, with smoke, flames and Hariri's vehicle on fire.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Co-prosecutor Graeme Cameron on Thursday described how different mobile phones were bought with false identities and used in networks in the run-up to the attack.
Prosecutors said that a "red group" of eight phones used until minutes before the bomb exploded was particularly important to the case.
Directly after the assassination, "the red group phones went silent. They were never used again," Cameron said.
Court-appointed lawyers for the four defendants have voiced concern about the case, saying they were hamstrung by a lack of resources and the fact that they were unable to consult their clients.
The trial of the suspects is likely to 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.
On Thursday, a car bomb killed several people in the town of Hermel, which has a primarily Shiite Muslim population, and is in the Bekaa region, where Hezbollah is highly influential.
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.