By Imad Creidi and Ellen Francis
BEIRUT, Aug 18 (Reuters) – The son of Lebanon’s slain former premier Rafik al-Hariri vowed he would not rest until the killers are punished after a U.N.-backed court on Tuesday convicted a member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group of involvement in the 2005 assassination.
In central Beirut, Hariri family members and loyalists stood at his grave waiting for his son, Saad, also a former premier, to speak from outside the tribunal in The Hague.
“(For) the first time in Lebanon’s history of many political assassinations, the Lebanese find out the truth,” Hariri said.
“The importance of this historic moment is the message for those that committed this terrorist crime and those who planned it: that the age of using crimes for political aims with impunity and without paying any cost is over.”
Some Lebanese, including victims of the attack who waited 15 years for a verdict, voiced disbelief at the acquittal of three other Hezbollah members. The tribunal also said it found no evidence of involvement by Shi’ite Hezbollah’s leadership or by Damascus.
“I am shocked. Instead of the network (of culprits) expanding, it is now one superman who has done all of that?” said Sanaa al Sheikh, who was wounded in the Feb. 14, 2005 bomb blast on Beirut’s waterfront that killed Hariri and 21 others.
She added that she had never expected such an outcome.
“They should pay us back the money they got,” said Mahmoud, speaking from a Sunni Muslim district of Beirut mostly loyal to the Hariris. The trial cost roughly $1 billion.
Hezbollah made no immediate comment on the ruling, but it has denied any involvement in the killing. Fireworks were briefly heard in Beirut’s Shi’ite southern suburbs, where Hezbollah holds sway.
“It was a false accusation and thank God now you see that our viewpoint has been confirmed,” said Hassan Chouman, a pro-Hezbollah official in a small Beirut neighbourhood. “This has not been on our mind for a long time.”
SON DEMANDS PUNISHMENT
The sentencing of Salim Jamil Ayyash, who was convicted while being tried in absentia for playing a central role in the execution of the attack, will be carried out later. He could face life imprisonment.
Hezbollah, designated by Washington as a terrorist group, has more influence than ever on the Lebanese state governed by a sectarian power-sharing system.
Christian President Michel Aoun and Shi’ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, both political allies of Hezbollah, called for unity after the verdict.
But Saad al-Hariri said he would not rest until justice had been served.
“We tell everybody: nobody (should) expect any more sacrifices from us. We have sacrificed what is dearest to us … Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today,” he said.
“It has become clear that the executing network is from within (Hezbollah’s) ranks. They think that justice will not reach them and that the punishment will not be served on them. I repeat: we will not rest until punishment is served.”
The head of the Christian Kataeb party, whose three lawmakers quit over the massive blast in Beirut port this month, said on Twitter: “How long will the world continue to ignore an armed group empowered from abroad and not by Lebanon?”
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Samia Nakhoul, Laila Bassam, Issam Abdallah and Imad Creidi, Michelle Nichols, Kate Holton and Nayera Abdallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, Mark Heinrich and Mike Collett-White)