THE HAGUE: The bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri may not have been a suicide attack, defense lawyers for two Hezbollah suspects accused of complicity in his assassination alleged Monday, as they delivered impassioned opening statements on the third day of the historic trial.
The lawyers revealed that they were in possession of “reliable” testimony that refuted the presence of the infamous explosives-laden Mitsubishi Canter van, which the prosecution says devastated Hariri’s convoy on the day of the attack, pointing out that no footage or satellite imagery of the moment of the attack exists despite extensive surveillance of the area.
They also condemned the presence of references to Hezbollah in the indictment and the prosecution’s disclosure that the suspects are Shiites, arguing that it contravened human rights, and said that potential defense witnesses, including senior Syrian and Lebanese officials, had been systematically assassinated ahead of trial.
The lawyers also said in their opening salvos in the politically charged case that no motive had been presented to support the accusations against the five members of Hezbollah accused of orchestrating the assassination and that the telecommunications evidence the prosecution relied on was insufficient to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“The pieces of the puzzle simply do not fit together,” said Antoine Korkmaz, the lead defense lawyer for Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah operative being tried in absentia.
Defense counsel for Badreddine and Hussein Oneissi addressed the trial chamber for over two hours in the first courtroom challenge to the prosecution’s case.
Badreddine is accused of being the “apex” of the cell that carried out the attack, while Oneissi is charged with helping orchestrate an alleged false claim of responsibility.
Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted by the court in connection with the bombing that killed Hariri and 21 other victims, plunging Lebanon into political turmoil.
Korkmaz began by pointing out that the prosecution had failed to identify the actual perpetrators of the attack, members of the so-called “red network” of telephones led by Salim Ayyash, one of the five suspects named by the court, and nor had they identified the alleged masterminds behind the bombing.
The prosecution relies on reams of telecommunications data that they used to identify the suspects, dividing the telephones allegedly used in the conspiracy into several color-coded networks, including the red network that groups the actual assassins.
“These accused are not the operatives of the bombing – those people remain entirely unknown,” Korkmaz said.
He also criticized the prosecution for not identifying a motive for the suspects to carry out the attack.
“This lack of motive of any identified mastermind makes the actions that they are accused of totally inexplicable,” he said.
Korkmaz also offered hints at how his team would challenge the prosecution’s case, casting doubt on the very idea that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who detonated explosives hidden in a large Mitsubishi Canter van parked on the road taken by Hariri’s convoy, a key component of the prosecution’s theory.
Korkmaz said that no footage of the moment of the explosion had survived despite the presence of many surveillance cameras in the area.
“Even more mysterious, there are no satellite images at the time of the attack,” he said.
He said there was no evidence that the Mitsubishi van shown in the prosecution’s footage on the day of the bombing was in fact the booby-trapped vehicle that exploded, and that there was no evidence of a lookout who informed the suicide bomber the convoy was on the move.
Korkmaz also made the shock revelation that he was in possession of “reliable” testimony “denying the presence of the so-called booby-trapped vehicle” in the area.
“It would appear that contrary to the prosecution’s thesis ... it must have been an underground explosion,” he said.
The possibility of an underground explosion has long been discounted by investigators, because of the challenges in setting up such a bomb with cables to detonate it in such a busy area of Beirut without being noticed.
Yasser Hassan, Oneissi’s defense lawyer, delivered an impassioned address that described the tribunal’s creation as “discriminatory.”
“Have the Lebanese been divided into a first class that deserves a tribunal and a second or third or even fourth class that does not deserve for their killers to be referred to the judiciary?” he added.
Hassan also declared that there was a campaign of assassinations targeting potential defense witnesses in the Hariri case that included senior Lebanese and Syrian officials.
These potential witnesses killed before trial include ISF intelligence chief Gen. Wissam al-Hasan and Syrian military intelligence officials Assef Shawkat and Jamaa Jamaa.
“Is someone carrying out a cleansing operation after the attack?” he said.
He criticized the prosecution for referring to the suspects as “supporters of Hezbollah,” which the indictment called a political and military organization.
“The indictment described a political, legitimate Lebanese party ... as a political and military organization, implying it is an illegal organization that does not enjoy legal protections in Lebanon. This is a transgression against the Lebanese state” and implies Hezbollah is responsible, he said.
“If the prosecution wants to accuse Hezbollah then they should accuse Hezbollah explicitly, or lift these references from the indictment,” he said.
He argued the reference to the sect of the suspects contravened human rights.
“Is there any court in the world ... where religion and sect of each accused is mentioned? That this is Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist or non-religious?”
The lawyers said Lebanese authorities failed to cooperate and complained of difficulties defending clients in absentia. They also criticized the prosecution for delaying disclosing evidence and repeatedly amending the indictment.