Hariri killing trial opens with Lebanon violence untamed
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands - Agence France-Presse
An Arabic copy of the international tribunal which reads, 'The original rule of the international tribunal for Lebanon,' sits in front of posters of slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri next to his grave in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 15. AP photoFour Hezbollah members went on trial in absentia at a special UN tribunal on Thursday accused of murdering Lebanon's former premier Rafiq Hariri in a 2005 car bombing, as sectarian tensions ran high in the Middle East country.
The trial opened in a suburb outside The Hague nine years after the huge Beirut blast that killed the billionaire Hariri and just hours after another car bombing killed at least three in a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon near the border with war-ravaged Syria.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (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.
A packed public gallery looked on as the repeatedly-delayed proceedings began, with a large scale model of downtown Beirut where the 2005 attack happened on a table before judges.
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.
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 STL in 2007.
Hariri's son Saad -- who himself was prime minister 2009-2011 -- sat in the courtroom behind the victims' representative. His hands were folded as he listened attentively.
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 the Syrian- and Iranian-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 attackers killed innocent bystanders, a student, a hotel worker, a cousin, a father, a brother, friends," chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his opening statement.
"Clearly their aim was not only to ensure that the target was killed, but to send a terrifying message to cause panic among the population of Beirut and Lebanon," he said, showing the court a photograph taken shortly after the blast, with smoke, flames and Hariri's vehicle on fire.
"The force of the blast was such that Mr Hariri was thrown from his car and it's reasonable to conclude that he died quickly at the scene," said co-prosecutor Alexander Milne.
The four suspects have been charged with nine counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit a terrorist act to homicide and attempted homicide.
Prosecutors allege 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.
Prosecutor's will aim to prove the four men's involvement through tracking their alleged use of mobile phones before, during and after the attack.
The court-appointed lawyers for the four defendants have voiced concern about the case, saying they were hamstrung by a lack of resources and the fact that they were unable to consult their clients.
The trial's opening has been "very traumatic for those who have gone through this terrible tragedy," said Lebanese politician Marwan Hamadeh, himself the target of an assassination attempt in 2004.
"I feel secure that international justice will replace failing Lebanese justice," the former minister told AFP.
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.
The powerful Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli conspiracy.
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.
A car bombing on Thursday killed at least three people in downtown Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold near the border with Syria.
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.