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A delayed, unsatisfying judgment for Lebanon

International tribunal ties Hezbollah to 2005 assassination but not its leadership

A delayed, unsatisfying judgment for Lebanon

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri addresses the media after a tribunal ruled on the death of his father. (AP Photo/Laurens van Putten)

Nearly 2,500 miles from the scene of the crime and 15 years later, a Special Tribunal for Lebanon ruled Tuesday that the main defendant charged with conspiracy to kill former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a member of Hezbollah and used a cell phone critical in the 2005 bombing. It left Hariri and 21 others dead. 

The tribunal, meeting in the Netherlands, acquitted three other men indicted in the case.

But hours into reading a 2,600-page judgment, the judges at the U.N.-backed tribunal said they could find no evidence the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part in the attack—despite tying the attack’s leader to the terror group. The decision threatened further unrest in the streets of Beirut—less than two weeks after a powerful explosion at the city’s port has devastated much of its downtown area.

The Special Tribunal, approved by the U.N. Security Council after the Hariri assassination, is the first international tribunal to take on the crime of terrorism. But the 11-judge panel has spent more than a decade in deliberations, involving 400 staff members at a cost of $700 million to U.N. member states.

The judges ruled that Salim Ayyash, one of four Hezbollah members indicted in absentia, had direct involvement in the assassination of Hariri. “The evidence also established that Mr. Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah,” said Judge Micheline Braidy.

AP Photo, File

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 (AP Photo, File)

“The attack was intended to resonate across Lebanon and the region … it was designed to destabilize Lebanon generally,” said Judge Janet Nosworthy. Yet the judges failed to render a verdict on involvement by Hezbollah’s top leadership.

The U.S. designates the Shiite group a terror organization, and it has a long history of attacks on international and regional targets. But in Lebanon, it has emerged as a political power broker since Hariri’s death. The Sunni Muslim billionaire was Lebanon’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 until his resignation in 2004. He had close ties with the United States, Western, and Gulf states, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Those efforts have floundered since his death.

Tuesday’s verdict had been delayed by the explosion in Beirut, but experts have long tied the 56-year-old Ayyash and others to the attack. Ayyash was related through marriage to Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s military commander, and was a brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, another military chief and founding member of Islamic Jihad who died in a 2008 car bombing. 

Ayyash reportedly bought the Mitsubishi van used in the 2005 attack with Badreddine, who was initially indicted by the tribunal but died in Syria in 2016. To plan the attack they used a cell network that the tribunal’s prosecutors tracked. 

The verdict appears to leave untouched Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Beirut protesters have openly vilified him in the streets following the port explosion, which killed at least 178 people and injured 6,000. The government has admitted it knew nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored at the port for six years and did nothing to remove the highly explosive material—setting the stage for the devastating blast. Residents believe it shows the Hezbollah-backed government as not only incompetent but also cruel.

AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Protesters throw back tear gas canisters towards riot policemen during an anti-government protest in Beirut on Aug. 10 (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Graffiti along a concrete barrier at the destroyed port reads, “The government did this.” And protesters chanted, “Hezbollah is a terrorist” as they hanged in effigy images of Nasrallah and other leaders outside Lebanon’s Parliament building not far from the seaside blast site. 

Nasrallah’s “lynching” marks “a major turning point” for Lebanese, said Habib Malik, associate professor of history at Lebanese American University. His father, Charles Malik, was a longtime Lebanese diplomat and ambassador to the United States. “Hezbollah has hijacked the government. Our currency free-fall is impoverishing everyone,” he said. “But something has snapped with the explosion.”

The United States is poised to impose sanctions on Lebanese leaders aligned with Hezbollah, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Trump administration sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and its political allies as part of a message: Change course in order to receive billions in international aid to rebuild the port.

Public fury led to demonstrators a week ago demanding the government’s resignation and occupying government buildings, including Parliament. On Aug. 10 the government resigned, leaving lawmakers to rule with even weaker caretaker cabinet ministers. In its first session since the explosion, Parliament approved a state of emergency set to last until Aug. 21, allowing the Lebanese Army to impose curfews, ban assemblies, and censor publications. 

That’s not stopping the protest movement, as organizers called for flash protests following the tribunal verdict Tuesday evening, even as cleanup from the blast continues. 

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.