Judges at a U.N.-backed tribunal said Tuesday that there was no evidence the leaderships of Hizbullah and Syria were involved in the 2005 suicide truck bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Presiding Judge David Re of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said that in the months before his death, Hariri was a supporter of reducing the influence of Syria in Lebanon and that of Hizbullah in Syria.
He said judges who studied reams of evidence in the trial of four Hizbullah members accused of involvement in the bombing were “of the view that Syria and Hizbullah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies.”
But he added that there was no evidence that “Hizbullah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it.”
Re was speaking as he delivered the final judgments in the trial. The court was not expected to rule on either Hizbullah or Syria — but on the four named Hizbullah suspects — as the tribunal can only accuse individuals, not groups or states.
The verdicts were delayed by nearly two weeks as a mark of respect for victims of another devastating explosion — the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port. The Aug. 4 blast killed around 180 people, injured more than 6,000, left a quarter of a million with homes unfit to live in and plunged a nation already reeling from economic and social malaise even deeper into crisis.
Re started the hearing with a minute’s silence to start the hearing to honor victims of the blast and their families as well as those made homeless by the port blast.
He was reading a summary of the written judgment that runs to more than 2,600 pages with some 13,000 footnotes.
Guilty verdicts could compound tensions in the tiny country. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his Feb. 14, 2005, assassination, while the Iran-backed Hizbullah is a Shiite Muslim group.
The trial centered on the alleged roles of four Hizbullah members in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and wounded 226 people. Prosecutors based their case largely on data from mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute the bombing.
Without the phone data there would be no case against the four suspects, Re said, as he began explaining the complex investigation into the telecom networks prosecutors say the suspects used.
Re said that the telecom evidence in the case was “almost entirely circumstantial.”
However, another judge, Janet Nosworthy, later said that judges had ruled that four different networks of mobile phones “were interconnected and coordinated with each other, and operated as covert networks at the relevant times.”
During the trial, which started in 2014 and spanned 415 days of hearings, the tribunal in Leidschendam, near The Hague, heard evidence from 297 witnesses.
Initially, five suspects were tried, all of them Hizbullah members. Charges against one of the group’s top military commanders, Mustafa Badreddine, were dropped after he was killed in Syria in 2016.
The remaining suspects are Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi. They are charged with offenses including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
If they are convicted, hearings will be held at a later date to determine their sentences. As the U.N.-backed court has no death sentence, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
None of the men is ever likely to serve time as Hizbullah has vowed not to hand over any suspects. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can appeal the verdicts.
The assassination was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria, a charge Damascus denies and which the judges now say was not borne out by evidence in the trial.
Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hizbullah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.
Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former prime minister, is attending the day-long delivery of the judgment and was one of four victims present in the courtroom for the hearing.
Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week insisted on the innocence of the suspects regardless of the verdicts. “For us it will be as if they were never issued,” he said of the verdicts.
Abed Itani, a supporter of the Hariri family in the Beirut neighborhood of Tariq al-Jedideh, said: “We have been waiting for the truth for 15 years and God willing today the truth will be made public. All what we want from the world and the Lebanese state is for those who carried out this explosion to be punished in accordance with justice.”