lmost nine years after Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was killed by a truck bomb, an international tribunal opened hearings into the case Thursday in a courtroom in the Netherlands with lawyers and judges clustered around a mock-up of the crime scene on the Beirut waterfront.
The prosecution likened the result of the attack to a “man-made hell.”
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Notably absent from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon, in a former spy-agency office on the outskirts of The Hague, were the four accused, who have been shielded from arrest and prosecution by Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite Muslim group that supports President Bashar Assad of Syria in the civil war against mainly Sunni insurgents.
The trial of Assad Sabra, Salim Ayyash, Hassan Oneissi (who changed his name to Hassan Issa) and Mustafa Badreddine represents the first time that an international tribunal has tried defendants in their absence since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Even if they are convicted, the four are entitled to a new trial if they are apprehended.
Badreddine, who is believed to have been the group’s deputy military commander, also is the suspected bomb maker in the 1983 blast at the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.
A fifth person has been indicted, Hassan Habib Merhi. He was charged later than the other four and is not officially a suspect in the trial that started Thursday.
They all are charged with terrorism and intentional homicide.
The tribunal has spent about $325 million preparing for the hearings into the attack that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005, in an assassination that convulsed the region and inspired huge protests against Syria’s influence in Lebanon.
While Sunni Muslims remain furious about the slaying of Hariri, their most prominent political figure, there were few signs in Beirut that the country is fixated on what is unfolding at the tribunal so far away.
Several TV stations ran extensive coverage of the opening statements by prosecutors, but few patrons seemed to be watching in cafes in predominantly Sunni West Beirut and Christian East Beirut where televisions displayed the proceedings.
In Shiite neighborhoods, people watching TV were taking in the news of a suicide bombing in the predominantly Shiite town of Hermel that killed four. The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated group that operates in Syria, claimed responsibility for that attack.
But Lebanese remained focused primarily on the deteriorating situation in Syria, which has begun to cross into Lebanon.
The two events — Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian war — are connected. Many believe Hariri was slain because he opposed the Syrian military occupation of his country — by then, Syria had been in Lebanon 29 years — and his death sparked international protests that eventually forced Syria to withdraw.
The killing exacerbated tensions between Lebanon’s religious groups, which today generally have picked sides in the Syrian war: Sunnis, backing the rebels seeking to topple Assad, and Shiites, who generally back Assad.
Many argue that after nine years, the importance of the Hariri killing has been surpassed by wars with Israel and a string of more recent and just as deadly incidents targeting Lebanon.
Still, many remember Feb. 14, 2005, as the day relations between Sunnis and Shiites, who overwhelmingly back Hezbollah, began to fall apart.
“We always respected Hezbollah and (leader) Hassan Nasrallah for fighting Israel and liberating the south,” said Khaled al Fakhoury, a Sunni businessman. “But when all of Lebanon wanted Syria to leave and the response was to kill Hariri, we realized they weren’t Lebanese, they’re Iranian agents.”
For its part, Hezbollah has denied its operatives had anything to do with Hariri’s death, an accusation that was lodged in a revised indictment that the Lebanon tribunal issued in 2009.
Hariri, who also held Saudi citizenship, was one of Lebanon’s most influential Sunni leaders, with wide connections in the Arab world and international community.
The trial, which is taking place under a mixture of Lebanese and international law, comes over the objections of Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies.
In opening statements, prosecutors stayed close to the revised indictment, which details phone records of a series of overlapping networks of prepaid cellphones only used to contact the other phones in the network.
Those phones appear to have communicated as Hariri’s movements were tracked and the bomb exploded between the St. Georges Hotel and the adjacent Byblos building, in “a man-made canyon” that concentrated the force of the blast, the prosecution said.
Immediately after the assassination — which was claimed by a previously unknown militant group that never surfaced again — the network went dead.
Prosecutors claim they can link the phones’ use to the four suspected members of Hezbollah. Describing the concentric series of phone networks allegedly used by the assassins, prosecutor Graeme Cameron said that from the end of December 2004 until Feb. 14, 2005, “the phones of the co-conspirators were almost always” everywhere Hariri went. Cameron explained that investigators made that determination by linking the phones through various cellphone towers.
Badreddine and the other suspects live more or less openly in southern Beirut, a situation that highlights Hezbollah’s rejection of demands for cooperation with the investigation and the Lebanese government’s complete impotence in investigating major crimes or making politically charged arrests.
A commonly cited statistic in Beirut is the failure to ever arrest and convict anyone for a major political crime in a nation that has seen scores of them in the past 50 years.
“Everyone knows who did which killing but the government never convicts or arrests anyone,” said Umm Atef, a Shiite supporter of Hezbollah who asked to be identified only by her nickname.
Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times is included in this report.