United Nations tribunal convicts 1 Hezbollah member in ex-Lebanon PM’s killing

A special United Nations backed court on Tuesday convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiracy to kill former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a 2005 bombing that set the stage for years of confrontation between Lebanon’s rival political forces.

The tribunal found  insufficient evidence against three other men charged as accomplices in the bombing and they were acquitted.

Judges said they were “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt” that the evidence showed that the main defendant, Salim Jamil Ayyash, possessed “one of six mobiles used by the assassination team” and ruled he was guilty of committing a terrorist attack and of homicide.

“The evidence also established that Mr. Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah,” said Judge Micheline Braidy, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict.

The three other defendants are also alleged members of the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group.

Judges said they had however found no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part in the attack that left 21 others dead. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing.

The verdict comes as the Lebanese people are still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 178 people this month and from a devastating economic meltdown.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire, had close ties with the United States, Western and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.

Investigation costs near $1 billion:

The investigation and trial in absentia of the four alleged Hezbollah members has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. Sentencing will be carried out later though Ayyash could face up to life imprisonment, or acquittal.

DNA evidence showed that the blast that killed Hariri was carried out by a male suicide bomber who was never identified.

Prosecutors used cell phone records to argue the men on trial — Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi — carefully monitored Hariri’s movements in the months leading up to the attack to time it and to put forward a fake claim of responsibility as a diversion.

Court-appointed lawyers said there was no physical evidence linking the four to the crime and they should be acquitted.