A decade-long international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri has found no evidence that the leaders of Iran-backed paramilitary group Hizbollah were responsible for his killing, nor any “direct evidence” implicating the Syrian regime.
The February 14 2005 suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 21 other people was a defining moment in the Middle East’s modern history, ultimately catalysing the end of almost three decades of Syrian military occupation of Lebanon.
Although the assassination was “undoubtedly a political act” and “Syria and Hizbollah may have had motives to eliminate” Hariri, David Re, presiding judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, said: “There is no evidence that the Hizbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement.”
The UN-backed tribunal heard charges against four Hizbollah members in absentia, including conspiracy to murder and commit terrorist acts. The judges ruled unanimously that one of the defendants, Salim Ayyash, was guilty on all counts. But it cleared his three co-defendants, saying there was not sufficient evidence to pin the allegations on them.
“For many people this is going to be justice delayed, justice denied,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center think-tank. “Bottom line, no one is going to be held accountable for a crime that, in the words of the judges, was meant to destabilise Lebanon.”
Almost two tonnes of explosives were detonated in the 2005 attack, shaking Beirut and leaving a 1.9m deep crater. The investigation could not identify the suicide bomber, but found “92 human parts” belonging to an unknown man who was “most likely” the bomber, said Judge Janet Nosworthy.
The prosecution’s case had largely rested on patterns of mobile communications, which they alleged showed that the defendants planned and carried out the assassination.
The UN-convened trial has been 15 years in the making, after a series of political assassinations prompted Lebanon’s government in late 2005 to ask the UN for an international tribunal to investigate. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon did not open until March 2009.
As Lebanon’s first post-civil war prime minister, Hariri was a pivotal figure and one of the Middle East’s most recognisable leaders. Fondly remembered by many Lebanese as having presided over a period of relative prosperity, the tycoon is widely credited with rebuilding downtown Beirut and jolting the country’s economy back into life by attracting large investments from the Gulf, where he had strong business ties.
Reading of the judgment at The Hague was postponed after the August 4 explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed about 180 people, injured thousands and wrecked swaths of the capital. The government has stepped down, while Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis since the civil war ended in 1990.
The verdict could weaken calls for international investigation into the blast at the port, argued Randa Slim, conflict resolution director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. It “strengthens the argument offered by opponents, including [Lebanese president Michel] Aoun that an investigation is not warranted”, she said.
The financial breakdown of the past year has, for some, dented Hariri’s reputation, as he and his political allies were founders of the now collapsed economic system and a form of governance seen as kleptocratic. His son, Saad Hariri, resigned as prime minister in the face of mass anti-corruption protests that erupted in October last year.
“We are still living today with the [political] ripple effect of the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri,” said Ms Yahya. Mass protests and international pressure that followed “got the Syrians out” but ultimately opened space for Hizbollah to become integrated into Lebanon’s government, she said.
Syria has long been suspected as being behind the assassination because Hariri appeared to threaten the neighbouring regime’s control of Lebanon. Although he had stepped down as prime minister in October 2004, he was planning to run again on an anti-Syrian ticket and was co-ordinating efforts with other Lebanese political leaders to mount an opposition to its neighbours’ influence.
Lebanon’s Hizbollah, a Shia Islamist paramilitary and political party, is allied to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The four men accused of conspiracy to carry out the attack, who stood trial in absentia, were all supporters of Hizbollah. A fifth alleged conspirator, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed fighting in Syria in 2016, according to Hizbollah, which has vowed not to hand over the four remaining defendants. It is unclear where they are.
The trial said it had heard evidence that Hariri and Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah had “good” relations. Yet it also said the murdered leader was making regular payments of “millions” of dollars to Syria’s military intelligence chief for Lebanon, “seen as a form of blackmail in order to maintain the relationship”. The court did not clarify why the money was being paid.