Beirut Explosion Delays Hariri Court Verdict for Iranian-backed Hezbollah

FILE PHOTO: Workers prepare a giant poster depicting Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

By Ahmad Rafat

On Aug. 8, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) postponed its verdict for two weeks in the trial of four men accused of assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was killed in a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.

The UN-backed STL, also known as the Lebanon Tribunal or the Hariri Tribunal, is in Leidschendam, on the outskirt of Hague in the Netherlands. It applies Lebanese law in its investigation and prosecution of defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes. It is the only international tribunal that holds trials in absentia.

The STL announced its decision to delay the verdict after a devastating explosion at Port Beirut on Aug. 4 that killed at least 158 people and injured 6,000 others. Lebanese authorities believe that the blast was caused by a massive stash of ammonium nitrate that was stored unsafely in a warehouse for several years.

EXCLUSIVE – Lebanon’s Leaders Warned in July About Explosives at Port – Documents

Prime Minister Hariri was in office from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 until his resignation in October 2004. He died when a car bomb exploded as his motorcade drove by the St. George Hotel in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005. Besides Mr. Hariri, 23 other people were killed, including several of his bodyguards and close friends, and former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan.

Rafic Hariri’s eldest son Bahaa Hariri believes Hezbollah assassinated his father on direct orders from Tehran. Bahaa Hariri is the older brother of Saad Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, who was in office from Dec. 18, 2016 until Jan. 21 of this year. Saad Hariri is the leader of the Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement), a Lebanese political movement.

The trial of four men accused of killing Rafic Hariri started on Jan. 16, 2016. The court held 415 sessions, heard from 231 witnesses, and reviewed some 3,122 documents, after which the STL concluded that the perpetrators and culprits in the Hariri assassination case had links with Hezbollah.

In 2011, the STL unsealed documents that showed that initially, five men with alleged ties to Hezbollah were indicted. The alleged leader of the group Mostafa Badreddine was reportedly killed in an explosion near Damascus International Airport in 2016. The other four defendants, who remain at large to this date, were tried at the STL in absentia.

Hezbollah has accused those opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of killing Mr. Badreddine. Badreddine replaced his cousin and brother-in-law, Imad Mughniyeh, a senior military commander of Hezbollah and the founder of Lebanon’s Islamic Jihad organization. Mr. Mughniyeh was killed in a car bomb in 2008. Israeli and U.S. authorities had accused Mughniyeh of carrying out several terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983.

Badreddine and 17 others were arrested in Kuwait. They were tried and sentenced to death for multiple bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait City in December 1983. The attacks left five people dead, and 86 others injured. Badreddine, however, escaped prison after the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi forces in 1990. According to some sources, the invading Iraqi forces released Badreddine and others from prison.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif represented Tehran at the funeral of Badreddine in Lebanon. Badreddine was reportedly a close friend of former Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi (in office from 2009 to 2016), and the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF), the late Lieutenant General Ghasem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. drone attack on the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 8.

Badreddine and Mughniyeh were close to Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah. Before the formation of Hezbollah, Badreddine reportedly worked with Force 17, a commando of the special operations unit of the Palestinian Fatah movement. He was also a member of the security detail of the late Yasser Arafat, the former Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while he was staying in Lebanon.

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Badreddine’s name was also mentioned in connection to the bombing of the Jewish center (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, AMIA) in Buenos Aires in July 1994, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. In 2006, the Argentine prosecutors’ office formally accused Hezbollah of carrying out the bombing under a direct order from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Although no suspects have ever been convicted for the bombing, the Argentine prosecutor’s office indicted several senior Iranian officials, including the former Iranian President, the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and General Ahmad Vahidi in connection to the bombing.

While Interpol did not include Mr. Rafsanjani on its list of suspects, the agency has issued Red Notices for other past and present senior Iranian officials including Mohsen Rezaei, the Secretary of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser on international relations to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Fallahian, the former Minister of Intelligence (in office from 1989 until 1997), General Ahmad Vahidi, and Ahmad Reza Asghari and Mohsen Rabbani, respectively, the former third secretary and the former cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.

According to STL court documents, one defendant in the Hariri assassination trial, Salim Jamil Ayyash, was a close associate of Badreddine. He was allegedly the leader of the group who assassinated Rafic Hariri. Mr. Ayyash is a Shia Muslim born in the village of Harouf, in southern Lebanon. He reportedly has U.S. permanent residency status (a green card holder). Ayyash was last seen in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah has repeatedly refused to hand over any of the defendants in the Hariri assassination case to the authorities, arguing that it does not recognize the STL’s legitimacy.

Two other defendants in the case, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra, were born in a predominantly Shia district of Beirut.

The fifth defendant in the case, Hassan Habib Merhi, had reportedly played no role in the actual assassination, as the court paper showed. He was charged with obstructing justice.

According to Graeme Cameron, the lead prosecutor in the trial, the court was presented with irrefutable evidence, including phone records, that showed Hezbollah and the defendants had been planning the bombing for weeks.

However, the lawyers for the defendants argued that phone records did not prove that their clients had committed any crime. They said that the prosecutor had no evidence linking their clients to the bombing.

While Saad Hariri believes his father was killed on orders from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Bahaa Hariri is convinced that Hezbollah assassinated their father under Tehran’s direction.

The Islamic Republic, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah believe that the trial at the STL aims to weaken the so-called “Axis of Resistance.” They claim that Israel had dictated the text of Mr. Cameron’s statement.

The STL’s findings, which resulted from six years of investigation and prosecution, could have delivered a crippling blow to Hezbollah, given the massive protests by many Lebanese who are demanding fundamental reforms in the country, including the disarming of Hezbollah.

However, the devastating explosion in Beirut last week has overshadowed the STL’s findings for the time being.

This article was translated and adapted from Persian by Fardine Hamidi.