More than 15 years after a massive truck bomb killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a United Nations-backed Special Tribunal found only one of the four accused members of the Hezbollah militant group guilty of involvement in the assassination on Tuesday. The four men were tried in absentia, and it’s unclear where they are today, or even if they’re still alive.
As he began reading the 2,600 long page judgement, presiding judge David Re said the attack “was committed for political and not personal reasons,” but he stopped short of implicating either Hezbollah’s leadership or the Syrian government. He said the tribunal had failed to identify any person or entity suspected of ordering the attack.
It was a long-waited verdict that comes at a pivotal moment for Lebanon, and it may disappoint many who were desperate to see justice for the brazen assassination.
“The court has ruled, and in the name of the family of the late prime minister Rafic Hariri and on behalf of the families of the martyrs and victims, we accept the court’s ruling,” Saad Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son who also served as prime minister after his father’s death, said outside the court.
Addressing all the families of those killed after delivering the verdict, the judge said he and the other tribunal officials hoped it would “give you some form of closure,” but he said they understood it would “in no way” leave them satisfied.
A nation reeling
The verdict was announced Tuesday after a two-week delay, out of respect for the victims of another catastrophic blast in the Lebanese capital. Theon August 4 killed more than 180 people, injured thousands and destroyed buildings across the Lebanese capital that Rafic Hariri was credited with rebuilding after a long civil war.
Aid agencies estimate that more than 300,000 people lost their homes in the blast, believed to be the result of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored without proper precautions at the port. Widespread corruption in Lebanese politics has been blamed for the negligence, and it sparked massive street protests.
Even before the port explosion, Lebanon’s resilience was being tested by a severe COVID-19 outbreak and “an unprecedented economic and financial crisis that led the country to default on its foreign debt,” in the words of the country’s most recent Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, writing in the Washington Post. He warned that if the situation worsens, mass starvation could spark a new exodus of Lebanese to Europe, and further destabilize the region.
The street protests in the wake of the port blast forced Diab and the rest of his cabinet to resign a week ago, but they continue acting as a caretaker government.
Sectarian politics and murder
The truck bomb that exploded on February 14, 2005 on Beirut’s seafront was less powerful than the port blast, but politically just as devastating. It blew up Hariri’s armored motorcade, instantly killing him and 21 of his entourage.
Years of meticulous forensic investigation, involving 12 international judges, 400 investigators and at a cost of some $700 million, pointed the finger toward four men associated with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed, militant Shiite Muslim political organization.
The group, deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. and much of the world, has long been a powerful political force in Lebanon, where politics is framed by the sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. When he was killed, Hariri was the most prominent Sunni figure in the country.
The tribunal’s investigation focused on telecommunications data that traced back to a closed circuit of cell phones allegedly used by the bombers as they carried out their deadly mission.
Even before it was announced, the tribunal’s verdict was stoking the tension between Lebanon’s political and religious factions. Hezbollah’s powerful leader Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly dismissed the tribunal, accusing it of being “a tool of its enemies in the United States and Israel.”
“For us it will be as if they were never issued,” said Nasrallah in a televised speech on Friday. He warned that “some will attempt to exploit the STL (tribunal) to target the resistance and Hezbollah.” He urged his supporters to be “patient,” regardless of the verdict.
“I was orphaned twice”
Alia Arab also had to learn patience. She waited 15 years to hear the verdict. Her father, Yahya Arab, was Hariri’s trusted personal security chief. Known as “Hariri’s shadow,” Yahya was in the car right behind Hariri when the bomb exploded, and was also killed in the blast.
“His body was so badly burned that they had to use DNA to identify his remains,” Alia told CBS News. She remembers the day vividly.
“It was Valentine’s day. I was on my way to the hairdresser when I heard the sound of the explosion,” she said. She tried to call her father’s cell phone, but it was off. “When I arrived at the hairdresser, I felt something wrong.”
“On that day, I was orphaned twice: My dad and President Hariri,” she said. “You expect your dad, one day, to die, but your future — your dream of a better country, on the same day?”
She said she always had complete trust in the tribunal’s work.
“No judgement will bring my dad back,” she told CBS News right after the verdict was delivered. “I believe in justice. Even if not the one on Earth, there is justice in heaven.”