The trial in absentia of four Hezbollah members accused of murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 has begun at a UN-backed tribunal at The Hague.
Nine years after a huge car bombing killed billionaire Hariri and 22 others in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and three years into Syria’s own bloody civil war, the trial started on Thursday for four Hezbollah suspects accused of plotting the assassination.
Hariri’s son, Saad – like his late father, also a former prime minister – was in the courtroom for the start of the trial along with family members of other victims of the February 14, 2005, blast.
|Several killed in Lebanon’s Hermel bombing|
“Our presence here today is in itself a proof that our stance, since the first moment, and every moment, was and will continue to be: seeking justice, not revenge, punishment and not vengeance,” he told reporters outside the court, saying it was “the time of justice for Lebanon”.
The trial opened against a backdrop of ongoing sectarian violence in Lebanon, where a car bomb exploded early on Thursday in a Hezbollah stronghold close to the country’s border with Syria, killing at least three people and wounding more than 20, security officials said.
Hariri’s killing led to huge street demonstrations, dubbed the “Cedar Revolution”, that helped put an end to Syria’s 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbour.
The seafront blast also 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.
Al Jazeera correspondent James Bays, reporting from The Hague, said “there was a large scale model of the seafront where the attack took place”.
He also said that the “judge wanted the court to assume that the defendants were present and that they had pleaded not-guilty”.
Hariri under surveillance
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.
|The trial of four Hezbollah suspects accused of killing former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has opened in the Hague.|
On Thursday, in his opening remarks, Farrell told the court: “the people of Lebanon have the right to have this trial, hear the evidence and seek the truth”.
“The attack captured the attention of the world. Its effects reveberating long after the explosion subsided. The people of Lebanon have the right to have this trial.”
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.”
In Beirut, about two dozen Hariri supporters gathered hundreds of metres from the site of the 2005 blast and uncovered a giant billboard with a picture of the late former prime minister and a sign that read “time of justice”.