Long-awaited Hariri killing trial opens at Hague
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands - The trial in absentia of four Hezbollah members accused of murdering former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005 opens at a UN-backed court on Thursday, with sectarian violence an undiminished threat at home.
Nine years after the huge Beirut car bombing killed billionaire Hariri, leading to the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and three years into Syria's own bloody civil war, prosecutors are to finally open their case in a suburb outside The Hague.
The February 14, 2005 seafront blast killed 22 people including Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the UN Security Council of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in 2007.
Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of Syrian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah.
A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.
The STL is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of a terrorist attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his indictment that Badreddine and Ayyash "kept Hariri under surveillance" before the Valentine's Day suicide bombing, while Oneissi and Sabra allegedly issued a false claim of responsibility to mislead investigators.
Hariri, Lebanon's Sunni prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of explosives equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of TNT as his armoured convoy passed.
A video was then delivered to the Beirut office of pan-Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in which a man "falsely claimed to be a suicide bomber on behalf of a fictional fundamentalist group called 'Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria'," prosecutors said.
They will aim to prove the four men's involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, Oneissi's court-appointed lawyer, said that "there is a huge disproportion between the prosecution and the defence's means, time and financial resources."
"We must defend the accused, who are not even here and without having had any contact with them."
The STL initially sparked fierce debate in Lebanon, sharply divided into the camp led by Hezbollah and its rivals in the March 14 movement, set up in the wake of Hariri's assassination and led by his son Saad, a former prime minister who is to attend the trial's opening.
The powerful Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli conspiracy, vowing that none of the suspects will be arrested.
Sectarian tensions have soared in Lebanon since Hezbollah openly intervened in the conflict in neighbouring Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces last year.
Syria and Hezbollah were blamed for the December 27 assassination of former finance minister Mohamed Chatah, an aide to Saad Hariri, in another downtown Beirut bombing.
Chatah was the ninth high-profile critic of the Syrian regime to be killed in Lebanon since Hariri's assassination, and his death served to remind many Lebanese that no one has been held accountable for those killings.