The trial in absentia of four Hezbollah members accused of murdering former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 is due to open at a UN-backed court.

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 Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2007.

Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of the Syrian-backed Shia movement Hezbollah.

A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.

The tribunal is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of an attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.

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 suicide 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 explosives equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of TNT as his armoured convoy passed.

A video was then delivered to the Beirut office of Al Jazeera in which a man "falsely claimed to be a suicide bomber on behalf of a fictional 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 defence's means, time and financial resources."

"We must defend the accused, who are not even here and without having had any contact with them."


Source: AFP