BEIRUT: An expert witness testified Tuesday that the explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri must have been caused by a roadside bomb.
The comment was the opening salvo in a key and controversial part of the case that has taken nearly a decade to come to trial.
“The essential question was whether the explosion took place above or below ground, what kind of explosive was used, [and] if possible to say something about how much explosive was used, and if possible we were to say something about the trigger mechanism of the device,” said Konrad Schlatter, a Swiss explosives expert who testified before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Schlatter said the size of the crater left by the explosion, the damage to surrounding buildings and the nature of the soil below the crime scene all offered clues that pointed to an explosion of 1,000 kilograms of TNT above the ground, killing Lebanon’s charismatic former premier.
Prosecutors believe that Hariri’s motorcade was destroyed by an explosives-laden Mitsubishi Canter van that was glimpsed in CCTV footage shortly before the attack. But defense lawyers have challenged this, saying the bombing was likely caused by an underground detonation.
The U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005 that killed Hariri and 21 others. Their trial in absentia began in January. The court adjourned for the summer judicial recess, and is expected to hear testimony by five witnesses over the coming two weeks. The STL has heard evidence from 22 witnesses so far.
Schlatter, an explosives expert and chemist versed in the dismantling of roadside bombs, arrived in Beirut March 5, 2005, with experts on weapons ballistics and DNA collection from crime scenes, to assist the U.N. fact-finding mission led by Irish police chief Peter Fitzgerald, which was formed shortly after the Hariri assassination.
Before outlining the evidence for an underground explosion during a day-long hearing, Schlatter said the crime scene was badly mishandled and “significantly altered” following the attack.
He said the rescue operations and the weather had altered the evidence and chemical clues found in the area.
The movement of emergency officials throughout the crime scene and the transfer of the vehicles of the convoy mechanically from the crime scene before the arrival of the experts had also altered the evidence, Schlatter said, adding that Lebanese officials showed investigators pieces of evidence that had been removed from the scene before their arrival.
Schlatter said his team found TNT at the crime scene, and by modeling the scattering of material in the aftermath of the explosion and the size of the crater they estimated the amount of explosive material used to be about 1,000 kilograms.
The amount of explosives needed to produce the massive crater left by the Hariri attack is crucial. Schlatter said that if the bomb was below ground, a much smaller amount of explosives, about 300 kilograms, would have been needed to produce a crater of the same size. One ton of explosives below ground would have produced a much larger crater than the one left by the Hariri attack.
But crucially, such a small amount of explosives would not have been able to shatter windows 250 meters away from the crime scene, Schlatter and his team found.
“That’s why we came to the conclusion that above ground explosion is most likely,” the Swiss expert said.
In addition, Schlatter said that vehicles in the area were propelled to the side, close to the ground, by the force of the explosion. If the bomb had been underground, the cars would have been blown away on a curved trajectory from the scene.
Schlatter’s testimony is the latest dramatic element in the Hariri case, which has been beset by delays and distractions, including an ongoing case against journalists from TV station Al-Jadeed and newspaper Al-Akhbar for alleged contempt of court.
His testimony offers a key boost to the prosecution’s narrative of the key moments in the runup to the infamous bombing, but prosecutors will face an uphill battle in proving this and other elements of the case.
Defense lawyers are set to cross-examine Schlatter Wednesday.