A United Nations tribunal looking into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri found one Hezbollah member guilty but acquitted three others.
The verdicts from the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon near the Hague in the Netherlands were delivered more than 15 years after Hariri was killed in bomb attack that also claimed the lives of 21 other people.
The court, which has no authority to try groups of states, also said on Tuesday that there was no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah — which maintains huge influence over Lebanese politics — or Syria were involved.
President Judge David Re said however that both entities had "motives to eliminate" Hariri, arguing that the murder of the prominent politician "did not happen in a historical or political vacuum".
Their verdicts concerned four identified Hezbollah suspects — Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi — who had been charged with offences including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, and face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted.
Only Salim Ayyash was found guilty on all charges but he is unlikely to serve any prison time — the four suspects have never been detained despite international arrest warrants and Hezbollah has vowed never to hand over any suspects.
Arrest warrants withdrawn
The tribunal also announced that it is withdrawing the arrest warrants against the three suspects acquitted.
Charges had initially been charged against a fifth Hezbollah suspect, one of the group’s top military commanders Mustafa Badreddine, but were dropped after he was killed in Syria in 2016.
Judge Re had stressed that the evidence against the four accused was "almost entirely circumstantial". The tribunal also said they could not determine who detonated the bomb but that dozens of body parts belonging to an unknown male, whom they believe to be the suicide bomber, were recovered from the scene.
Saad Hariri demands 'sacrifice'
Rafik Hariri's son, Saad, himself a former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was among those present at the UN tribunal.
"We accept the court's ruling and we want justice to be done so that the criminals are handed over to justice," he wrote on Twitter after the court handed out its verdicts.
He described the ruling as "a historical moment" and "a message to those who committed and planned this terrorist crime that the time for using crime in politics without punishment or price is over".
Hariri added that "a sacrifice must be made today by Hezbollah".
Tensions between Sunni and Shiites
The verdicts were initially meant to be delivered two weeks ago but were delayed in a sign of respect to the victims of the explosion that devastated Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on August 4.
The blast at Beirut's port — the result of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that accidentally ignited — killed nearly 180 people, wounded a further 6,000 and left some 300,000 homeless, further angering a population already furious with the political establishment criticised for plunging the country into a deep economic crisis.
The proceedings on Tuesday kicked off with a minute of silence to honour the victims.
Even before the devastating Beirut port blast, the country’s leaders were concerned about violence after the verdicts. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group.
Tensions between Sunni and Shiites in the Middle East have fuelled deadly conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to a smaller scale in Lebanon. Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.
Ahead of the verdict, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun wrote on Twitter that Hariri's assassination "greatly affected the lives of the Lebanese people and the course of events in Lebanon, and we must accept what will be issued by the International Tribunal, even if the late justice is not fair."
Hannes Baumann, senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool and a visiting fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre told Euronews following the verdicts that "the judgement is unlikely to lead to increased tension in Lebanon" because "it brought no new revelations."
"Hezbollah will likely be able to live with it and its local opponents have little appetite to use the verdict against them.
"I hope the verdict brings some closure to the victims' families but it will have failed to end impunity in Lebanon. International judicial processes seem unable to bring about political change in Lebanon, not least because they themselves become politicised," he went on.
But for others, especially those more closely linked to the violence that has plagued Lebanon, the verdicts still carry significance.
"It’s going to be a great, great moment not only for me as a victim but for me as a Lebanese, as an Arab and as an international citizen looking for justice everywhere," prominent former legislator and ex-Cabinet Minister Marwan Hamadeh, who was seriously wounded in a blast four months before Hariri’s assassination, said ahead of the verdicts.
Hamadeh said those who killed Hariri were behind the attempt on his life. The tribunal has indicted one of the suspects in Hariri’s assassination with involvement in the attempt on Hamadeh’s life.
Hamadeh resigned as a member of parliament in protest a day after the Beirut port blast.
$1 billion trial
Hariri's killing was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria. It stunned and deeply divided the country, which has since been split between a Western-backed coalition and another supported by Damascus and Iran. Syria has denied having a hand in Hariri’s killing. Following post-Hariri assassination protests, Damascus was forced to withdraw thousands of troops from Lebanon, ending a three-decade domination of its smaller neighbour.
Since the assassination in 2005, several top Syrian and Hezbollah security officials have been killed, in what some supporters of the tribunal say were the result of liquidations to hide evidence.
Hamadeh, the legislator, called such deaths "Godly justice," adding that "we don’t know how. Some say they were liquidated by their own teams, some say the Syrian regime got rid of them to put the suspicion and the doubts away, some said internal feuds."
The tribunal was set up in 2007 under a U.N. Security Council resolution because deep divisions in Lebanon blocked parliamentary approval of the court that operates on a hybrid system of Lebanese and international law. The investigation and trial cost about $1 billion, of which Lebanon paid 49% while other nations paid the rest.