Lebanon News

Hariri verdict likely in 2019 as STL enters final stretch

The building housing the STL in the Hague, Thursday, March 25, 2010. (The Daily Star/Roger Dohmen, HO)

BEIRUT: Are the four Hezbollah-affiliated individuals accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri guilty?

Fourteen years after the bombing that devastated Downtown Beirut and shook the country, Lebanon can finally expect an answer sometime in the middle-to-end of 2019 from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

“In the early weeks of September [2018], the prosecution, legal representatives of victims [LRV] and the defense will be making their closing arguments in front of the Trial Chamber,” STL spokesperson Wajed Ramadan told The Daily Star Friday.

“After the parties and LRV present their closing arguments, they will be followed by replies to each other if necessary.

“The last word will be reserved for the accused via their defense teams. After that, the chamber will withdraw for deliberation.”

According to Ramadan, it may take several months for judges to reach a conclusion, but a concrete timeline, the spokesperson emphasized, cannot be certain.

Once a verdict is set, both the prosecution and defense retain the right to appeal.

Following the upcoming hearings, judges will begin to review the years of evidence that have been presented since the first session on Jan. 17, 2014.

While all parties are slated to conclude their cases in front of the Trial Chamber, redacted versions of the prosecution and the LRV’s final trial briefs have already been made public online.

Such conclusions could provide an idea of how the parties will approach their closing arguments.

The prosecution’s 400-page final trial brief sets out who was allegedly responsible for the assassination.

Mustafa Badreddine, a Hezbollah military commander who was killed while fighting in Syria in 2016, is alleged to have led the three-man team that coordinated the attack. Charges against Badreddine were dropped by the STL following his death.

His immediate subordinate, according to the prosecution, was Salim Ayyash, supported by Hassan Merhi. Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra are charged with having organized a false claim of responsibility that was designed to mislead investigators.

All the men, the brief notes, are linked by two primary factors: their interrelated use of various networks of mobile phones and their support for Hezbollah.

The prosecution states that the

assassination could only have been carried out by a well-organized, sophisticated group.“The vast amount of high-grade explosives used in the attack points to the sophistication of the assassins, consistent with the interrelated covert networks of phones used in preparing and executing the attack,” according to the prosecution.

Much of the brief is dedicated to setting out the prosecution’s extensive mobile phone evidence, consisting primarily of call data records, which it says demonstrates “the phones identified by the prosecution are those undoubtedly used for the preparation and execution of the attack and the false claim [of responsibility], and also that the users of those phones are the accused.”

The prosecution points out that it is unnecessary to establish that the accused were “acting on the behalf or at the behest of any organization, leader, state or entity.”

Nevertheless, much of the brief is dedicated to setting out a political chronology to explain why senior Hezbollah operatives, closely tied to the Syrian government, would have sufficient motive to carry out the attack.

The prosecution argues that “the death of Hariri is inextricably linked with the question of Syria’s continuing hegemony over Lebanon established after the Civil War.”

It describes Hariri’s worsening relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad as a result of Assad’s political influence over him, as well as the pressure applied by Syria to extend the term of its ally, then-Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

Furthermore, the prosecution states the activity of the covert phone networks used in the prosecution’s evidence coincides with “the development of major political tensions in Lebanon from August 2004 to February 2005.”

The defense parties are unlikely to propose an alternative backer for the well-organized attack, as the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to establish the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

They are more likely to challenge the prosecution’s heavy reliance on mobile phone evidence, having spent many hours of trial time cross-examining the prosecution’s expert witnesses for this issue.

Nevertheless, former director of General Security and current MP Jamil al-Sayyed, a key witness for the Oneissi defense, suggested in his testimony to the STL in June that Hariri was in fact killed for his willingness to work alongside Syria, and that Israel or the United States were more likely the perpetrators.

The prosecution does not possess a single “smoking gun” piece of evidence that ties the accused to the crime, but insists they are incriminated by “a mosaic of evidence, understood in combination and strengthened when pieced together.”

In the LRV’s final trial brief, a 153-word document, lawyers have summarized the trauma inflicted upon victims along with their demands for reparations. While 22 individuals were killed, including Hariri and then-Economy Minister Basil Fuleihan, hundreds near the scene sustained chronic debilitations.

Seventy-two of those victims have cooperated with the STL, offering their testimony of the life-changing event and insisting that justice be served.

In addition to wanting to know the truth behind the events leading up to Feb. 14, 2005, the LRV expressed the victims’ desire for financial compensation, a formal apology from the state and a memorial to their enduring memory.

“They want financial compensation for the harm their families have suffered due to the loss. They also believe a memorial for the victims is valuable for those who have lost their loved ones,” the LRV’s document read.

A redacted version of the defense’s closing arguments is expected to be publicized online in the coming days.

Maria al-Kasti and Liliane Khallouf, two victims of the 2005 bombing, expressed optimism over the imminent developments in the trial.

At the time of the explosion, both were working at the HSBC bank just meters away from the site.

Kasti and Khallouf have endured both physical and mental trauma.

“It’s good to finally know the truth, and the guilty will be punished.” Khallouf told The Daily Star Friday. Having followed the trial closely over the years, she expressed confidence the four accused were guilty of their alleged crimes. “That’s really all I can say.”

Any verdict of innocence would be a major setback personally, she added.

“It will be as if we are starting from the beginning.”

Kasti, who remains friends with Khallouf, has also followed the trial closely. As a result of blunt trauma to the head, Kasti has permanently lost her sense of smell.

Like her former colleague, Kasti was hopeful that the accused would be found guilty. “The evidence is in their hands. I would be shocked if they were found innocent,” she told The Daily Star.

“This is a big deal for me,” Kasti said.

“I have faith in the tribunal and I think they will reach a verdict that is fair for all. I’m hoping 2019 will be positive.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 18, 2018, on page 1.




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