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STL heralds new era

The Judges Walid Akoum, Janet Nosworthy, David Re, Micheline Braidy and Nicola Lettier in the courtroom of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague, the Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters/United Photos)

THE HAGUE: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon holds a second day of deliberations Friday in the historic first international trial for a crime of terrorism, a day after the prosecution provided a detailed account of the day statesman Rafik Hariri was assassinated and the surveillance network that tracked him for weeks before his murder.

“The attack captured the attention of the world, its effect reverberating long after the explosion subsided,” Prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his opening statement. “The people of Lebanon have the right to have this trial, to hear the evidence and to seek the truth.”

The U.N.-backed court held its first in-absentia hearing at the Hague in the trial of four Hezbollah suspects accused of complicity in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 21 other victims.

The prosecution painted a gruesome, painful portrait of the day of the attack, recounting all the details leading up to the moment when Hariri’s motorcade swung by the explosives-laden Mitsubishi Canter van that left an 11-meter-wide crater in its wake.

The opening salvo in the trial also detailed the movements of the telephone networks that allegedly planned the assassination, and which supposedly belonged to the suspects.

One of the phone networks began tracking the former premier shortly after he announced his intention to resign from the government in October 2004, the prosecution said, pointing for the first time to the potential political motive for the attack. The resignation also coincided with the lowering of Hariri’s security detail from 40 ISF officers to about eight.

In its first court day, which former Prime Minister Saad Hariri described as historic for Lebanon, the prosecution offered a distressing account of the deadly attack as some of the victims present in the court wept at the horrifying footage.

In his opening statement, the prosecutor, standing behind a model of Downtown Beirut where the explosion took place, opened the trial with emotional images of the devastation in Downtown Beirut following the attack, including images of the remains of Hariri’s convoy.

Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son, along with MPs Marwan Hamadeh and Sami Gemayel, was among several Lebanese officials who attended the session, reliving the Feb. 14 bombing which plunged Lebanon into political turmoil and ended Syria’s formal tutelage over the country.

“It is not that the perpetrators simply did not care about killing their fellow citizens,” Farrell said. “They intended to do so.”

Voicing confidence that the evidence would prove the guilt of the suspects beyond reasonable doubt, Farrell said the assassination was aimed at sending “a terrifying message and to cause panic among the population of Beirut and Lebanon.”

He said the telecommunications evidence showed a complex and sophisticated surveillance plan of the former five-time premier which was not “innocent” or coincidental, adding that the suspects took steps to conceal their identities and to create a false trail to mislead investigators.

“Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, as the evidence will show, conspired together with others to commit this terrorist act,” he said, listing the suspects’ names.

In 2011, the court indicted the four suspects, described as “supporters of Hezbollah,” for involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005, attack.

A fifth Hezbollah suspect, Hassan Merhi, was accused last year of complicity in the killing. The STL has not yet decided whether to try the fifth man along with the others.

Hezbollah has repeatedly criticized the tribunal, describing it as a U.S.-Israeli tool aimed at inciting strife in Lebanon and targeting the resistance group.

The party’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has said the suspects would never be apprehended.

Hezbollah has sought to discredit the tribunal with Nasrallah questioning the credibility of former STL prosecutors and criticizing investigators as having ties to Western intelligence agencies.

Attending the court’s opening at The Hague was a delegation of the victims and their families, whose hopes hang on the trial’s outcome.

Senior Trial Counsel Alexander Milne spoke about Hariri’s activities that day, including his visit to Parliament and his unexpected stop at Cafe de l’Etoile.

The prosecution showed CCTV footage showing the explosives-rigged Mitsubishi Canter van slowly moving before Hariri’s convoy passed by. The truck came from a tunnel that is part of a highway linked to the southern suburbs. The footage also showed images after the blast including scenes of anguished bystanders and security personnel as well as the blanket-covered body of the former premier.

“Those who died were victims, those who were injured were victims, their families were victims, and the people of Lebanon as a whole were victims of this attack,” Milne said.

The prosecution said the bomb was detonated manually, saying there was no evidence to suggest it was done wirelessly. Milne said the “generous” Lebanese onlookers rushed to help without any regard for their safety.

The prosecution said there was no evidence that the man who appeared in a claim of responsibility for the attack by the group Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria, Abu Adass, had anything to do with the assassination.

The prosecution also said the bomb was most likely placed above the ground when it was manually detonated and contained 2 tons of RDX, an explosive material more powerful than TNT.

The prosecution also began outlining details of the surveillance of Hariri, showing copies of falsified ID cards allegedly used by the suspects to purchase telephones used by leaders of the assassination cell.

Trial counsel showed the movement of the surveillance networks overlayed on maps of Beirut. The prosecution argues that the sophistication and level of surveillance shows criminal intent.

Also attending the trial was Mahmoud Eid, the father of Wissam Eid, an ISF officer who was assassinated after working on the telecommunications evidence in the Hariri case. Eid voiced “pride” because of his son’s work.

“He opened the road and the first breakthrough in this investigation,” he told The Daily Star during a court break.

“I feel that Wissam’s martyrdom has borne fruit, because he was martyred in the path of truth,” he said.

Trial will resume Friday at 10:30 a.m. The prosecutor is expected to detail the rest of the evidence which relied on telecommunications data. The analysis of call data records allegedly revealed several networks that tracked Hariri and were responsible for the assassination.

The court is likely to proceed next week to presenting some of the prosecution’s first witnesses

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2014, on page 1.

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