The 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a terrorist act, judges at the United Nations-backed tribunal in the Hague set up to investigate it said in a ruling on Wednesday.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon also said that evidence presented by prosecutors "could" lead to the convictions of four suspects. That means lawyers for the four, who were allegedly affiliated with the Hezbollah Shi'ite militia group, must present their defenses. The defendants remain at large and are being tried in absentia.
Prosecutors rested their case last month. Lawyers for one of the suspects, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, had asked for early acquittal, saying all evidence against him was circumstantial. But Judge Janet Nosworthy said that evidence, including cell phone records presented by prosecutors, showed Oneissi may have been involved in an elaborate attempt to blame the attack on a fictional terrorist group. It also could imply he knew the attack itself was being prepared.
“The trial chamber has sufficient evidence from which it could convict Mr. Oneissi of his involvement in the attack on Mr. Hariri,” she said. The court ordered an organizational meeting with all defense lawyers for Thursday. Judges underlined that they have not concluded any of the suspects are actually guilty, only that they have a case to answer. Defense lawyers for the other suspects, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi and Assad Hassan Sabra, did not seek early acquittal.
Elsewhere in the decision, Presiding Judge David Re said the attack, which killed Hariri and 21 others, was an act of terrorism, intended to sow fear among the Lebanese people, and could only have been carried out by a sophisticated group, with intricate planning over a long period of time.
Re said Wednesday’s decision did not say anything about whether the facts against the suspects had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Hezbollah has denied any role in the 2005 bombing which killed Hariri, a billionaire Sunni Muslim politician, and 21 other people on the Beirut seafront. Hariri's killing plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises and assassinations that led to clashes in May 2008, dragging the country to the brink of conflict in a country still scarred by its 1975-1990 civil war.
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Last month, the lawyer representing Oneissi argued there were “no prints, no photos, no texts, no email” nor any video evidence linking his client to the alleged bomb plot to kill Hariri. Lawyers for Salim Jamil Ayyash also said the prosecution had not met its burden of proof.
When the indictments were filed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissed them as a failed attempt to sow strife and bring down Lebanon's Hezbollah-backed government. He has also called the tribunal a tool of U.S. and Israeli policy.