BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon named Hasan Habib Merhi, a “supporter” of Hezbollah, as the fifth suspect in the February 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others.
The court also offered for the first time a tantalizing glimpse into Lebanese efforts to arrest Merhi, pointing out that the “security situation” in the southern suburbs of Beirut following two car bombing this summer have impeded the manhunt.
Merhi, 48, is accused of coordinating a false claim of responsibility as part of the preparations for the attack. He is charged with a number of crimes including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
Four Hezbollah members were previously indicted in 2011 for involvement in the attack.
The STL said in a statement Thursday that an indictment and arrest warrant for Merhi were issued to the Lebanese authorities in August.
The court had given Lebanese authorities 30 days to arrest Merhi, but the prosecutor general reported back in early September saying that the efforts had failed.
As a result, the STL president ordered a public advertisement to aid with locating the accused.
Prosecutor Norman Farrell welcomed the confirmation of the indictment and the lifting of confidentiality.
“Recognizing that all suspects are presumed innocent and have the right to a full defense, the prosecution is working toward accountability, preparing to present reliable and credible evidence to the trial chamber,” he said in a statement. “My office remains committed to working at full capacity to bring perpetrators to justice and, by doing so, to achieve a just result for the victims.”
In its announcement Thursday, the court published the decision by its president, Judge David Baragwanath, to lift the confidentiality on the indictment against Merhi.
The decision details the efforts of the Lebanese authorities to arrest Merhi in unprecedented detail, pointing out that the judicial police visited 12 properties associated with him.
But the judicial police report said the security situation following two car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs prevented them from visiting properties belonging to Merhi.
Hezbollah had set up several security checkpoints at the entrances to the southern suburbs after two car bomb attacks in Bir al-Abed and Ruwaiss, strongholds of the party.
“However, despite the efforts of the judicial police, the unstable security situation in Lebanon and a host of practical challenges have recently prevented the Lebanese authorities from gaining access to such places of residence and from locating the accused,” Baragwanath said in his decision, describing the Lebanese efforts.Merhi was initially sought by the STL in June this year as a witness prior to his indictment. Judicial police visited an apartment thought to be his last place of residence but did not locate him. Since then, the “security situation in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon has deteriorated markedly,” the STL president said.
The judicial police also unsuccessfully sought information on Merhi from four mokhtars in areas where he lived, according to the report, which states that Merhi owns property in Lebanon and was registered on the 2013-14 voter roll for the district of Zqaq al-Blat, where he was born.
He does not have a criminal record with the Internal Security Forces, and immigration records show that he has not officially left Lebanon.
The level of detail in the STL decision signaled a renewed effort to impel Lebanon to comply with the obligation to arrest the five men.
Baragwanath’s decision appeared to confirm that Merhi’s last known residence was in the southern suburbs of Beirut, saying it was in a location “which has recently been subject to grave breaches of security resulting from the bombings.”
In a sign of frustration with the lack of arrests, the STL called on Lebanon to intensify its efforts. “I respectfully suggest that it may be time for the Lebanese authorities to reinvigorate and intensify their efforts to apprehend all five accused,” Baragwanath said in the decision.
The only address of Merhi listed in the indictment is in Burj al-Barajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut that includes a Palestinian refugee camp.
Hezbollah declined to comment on the new indictment. “We have nothing at the moment,” said Ibrahim Moussawi, the party’s spokesman.
Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has described the court as a U.S.-Israeli tool aimed at targeting his group and inciting strife in the country. Nasrallah has also said that the four suspects will never be apprehended.
The new indictment is currently part of a separate case, and the tribunal maintains it will have no impact on the start of trial. The prosecutor may apply for an “adjoinder” combining the two cases at a later date.
After the 30-day advertisement period, the court’s trial chamber will decide whether sufficient efforts have been made to notify Merhi, before ruling on whether to try him in absentia.
The public advertisement will allow the court to take a “broader approach in informing Mr. Hasan Habib Merhi about the charges against him and inviting people from the public who know his whereabouts to come forward,” said STL spokesperson Marten Youssef.
But the STL did not publish an image of Merhi, raising questions of how members of the public might be able to identify him. Youssef said an image would be published in two days.
The prosecutor described Merhi in the indictment as a “supporter of Hezbollah,” a term the court uses since it can’t prove an individual’s membership in the party.
But Youssef stressed that the court was focused on the individual criminal responsibility of the suspects. “Mr. Hasan Habib Merhi or any of the other accused are not being prosecuted for their alleged role in any particular organization,” he said. “They are simply being prosecuted for the alleged charges against them.”
The indictment alleges that Merhi took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hariri along with the four other men accused by the STL – Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra.
Farrell alleged that Merhi, together with Badreddine, coordinated the preparation of the false claim of responsibility, and was in contact with Ayyash in relation to the preparations for the attack.
He also allegedly coordinated the efforts to identify Ahmad Abu Adass, who appeared in the video claiming responsibility for the attack.
The indictment claimed that Merhi coordinated the efforts to disseminate the claim of responsibility to the news channel Al-Jazeera.
Call data records gathered by investigation teams indicate that Merhi was part of the “purple network” of phones used to arrange the false claim of responsibility. He was also in contact with Ayyash, the coordinator of the assassination team, and with Badreddine.