There is no evidence that Hezbollah's leadership or the Syrian government were involved in the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon found on Tuesday. But the tribunal found main defendant Salim Ayyash, a member of Hezbollah, guilty of involvement in Hariri's death.
"The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri and his political allies, however there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr. Hariri's murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement," said Judge David Re, reading a summary of the court's 2,600-page decision.
But the UN-backed tribunal in Leidschendam on the outskirts of The Hague found Salim Ayyash guilty of involvement in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others on February 14, 2005. Another 226 people were injured in the huge blast, which took place outside a seaside hotel in Beirut.
A hearing will be held at a later date to determine Ayyash's sentence. As the court has no death sentence, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
There was insufficient evidence against three other Hezbollah members charged as accomplices in the bombing and they were acquitted, the tribunal said.
Prime minister Hariri's death set the stage for years of confrontation between Lebanon's rival political forces, notably with Iran-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. Hariri, a billionaire who had led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war, was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his assassination. He had close ties with the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon.
The verdicts were delayed by nearly two weeks as a mark of respect for victims of another devastating explosion – the massive Beirut port blast that killed around 180 people and injured thousands more on August 4, plunging a nation already reeling from economic and social malaise even deeper into crisis.
The court ruling threatens to compound the political tensions in the country.
The trial centred on the alleged roles of four Hezbollah members in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri. Prosecutors based their case largely on data from mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute the bombing. The four men, who were charged with offences including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, were tried in absentia.
The judges said Tuesday they were "satisfied beyond reasonable doubt" that main suspect Ayyash was most likely the user of mobile phones used to scope out Hariri ahead of the attack, the key argument of the prosecution case.
They were also satisfied that the 56-year-old Ayyash "had associations with Hezbollah".
Judges said there was not enough evidence to convict Assad Sabra, 43, Hussein Oneissi, 46, and Hassan Habib Merhi, 54, over the blast,
But they said evidence linked phones to the alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was indicted by the court but is believed to have been killed in the Damascus area in May 2016.
During the trial, which spanned 415 days of hearings, the tribunal heard evidence from 297 witnesses.
When it opened in January 2014, a scale model of the blast scene stood on a table in the centre of the courtroom and a prosecutor told judges that explosives packed into a Mitsubishi truck detonated to create “a man-made hell”.
The assassination was seen by many in Lebanon at the time as the work of Syria, a charge Damascus denies.
Some Lebanese saw the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying while Hezbollah – which denies involvement – called it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.
Hariri’s son Saad Hariri, himself a former prime minister, attended the day-long delivery of the judgment. He said his family accepts the ruling on his father's death.
"The court has ruled, and in the name of the family of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri and on behalf of the families of the martyrs and victims, we accept the court's ruling," he said outside the court.
"Today, we have all discovered the truth," he said.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)