A U.N.-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiracy to kill former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a 2005 bombing that set the stage for years of confrontation between Lebanon's rival political forces.
There was insufficient evidence against three other men charged as accomplices in the bombing and they were acquitted, the tribunal found.
Judges said they were "satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt" that the evidence showed that the main defendant, Salim Jamil Ayyash, possessed "one of six mobiles used by the assassination team" and ruled he was guilty of committing a terrorist attack and of homicide.
"The evidence also established that Mr. Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah," said Judge Micheline Braidy, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict.
The three other defendants are also alleged members of the Iran-backed Shi'ite Muslim group.
Judges said they had however found no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part in the attack that left 21 others dead. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the February 14, 2005 bombing.
The verdict comes as the Lebanese people are still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 178 people this month and from a devastating economic meltdown.
- Lebanese have little hope blast probe will lead to truth
- Global battle for control over a devastated Lebanon has begun
- UN tribunal set to announce verdicts in Hariri case 15 years after Beirut assassination
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire, had close ties with the United States, Western and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, and was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.
Hariri's assassination plunged Lebanon into what was then its worst crisis since the war, setting the stage for years of confrontation between rival political forces.
'International Justice Defeats Intimidation' read a headline in Lebanon's an-Nahar daily with a caricature of the slain Hariri's face looking at a mushroom cloud over the devastated city, with a caption: "May you also (get justice)," referring to an investigation that could unveil the cause of the blast.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that if any members of the movement were convicted, the group would stand by their innocence. But views of the case are mixed.
Beirut tour guide Nada Nammour, 54, speaking before the reading of the verdict began, said that the 2005 bombing was a crime that should be punished. "Lebanon needs to see law and justice ... We were born in war, we lived in war and will die in it, but our children deserve a future."
The verdict in The Hague may further polarize the already divided country and complicate an already tumultuous situation after the August 4 blast at the Beirut port, where authorities say ammonium nitrate stored unsafely detonated, fuelling public outrage and leading to the government's resignation.
Hariri's killing removed a powerful Sunni leader and allowed the further political expansion of Shi'ite power led by Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon.
Justice 15 years on
The judgment had initially been expected earlier this month, but was delayed after the port explosion.
The investigation and trial in absentia of the four Hezbollah members has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. It could result in a guilty verdict and later sentencing of up to life imprisonment, or acquittal.
DNA evidence showed that the blast that killed Hariri was carried out by a male suicide bomber who was never identified.
Prosecutors used cell phone records to argue the men on trial, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi, carefully monitored Hariri's movements in the months leading up to the attack to time it and to put forward a fake claim of responsibility as a diversion.
Court-appointed lawyers said there is no physical evidence linking the four to the crime and they should be acquitted.
The reading of the verdict is set to last several hours.
Hariri's son Saad, who took his father's mantle and has served as premier three times, is expected to attend. He accepted the verdict but vowed he would not rest until punishment is served, saying it was time for the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement to assume responsibility.
"Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today," he said. "I repeat: we will not rest until punishment is served."
"I am shocked. Instead of the network (of culprits) expanding, it is now one superman who has done all of that?" said Sanaa al Sheikh, who was wounded in the Feb. 14, 2005 bomb blast on Beirut's waterfront that killed Hariri. She added that she had never expected an outcome like this.
"They should pay us back the money they got," said Mahmoud, speaking from a mainly Sunni Muslim district of Beirut loyal to Hariri, referring to the roughly $1 billion cost of the trial.
There was only silence from Hezbollah, which denies any involvement in the bomb attack that also killed 21 other people. Fireworks were briefly heard in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's Shi'ite Muslim southern suburbs.
President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, both Hezbollah allies, called for unity after the verdict.
"We tell everybody: nobody expect any more sacrifices from us. We have sacrificed what is dearest to us...Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today," Saad al-Hariri said.
"It has become clear that the executing network is from within (Hezbollah's) ranks. They think that justice will not reach them and that the punishment will not be served on them. I repeat: we will not rest until punishment is served."
Some Lebanese say they are now more concerned with finding out the truth behind the Beirut port blast.
"I do want to know what the verdict is ... but what matters now is who did this (port blast) to us because this touched more people," said Francois, a volunteer helping victims in a ruined district.