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Lebanon News

STL defense pokes holes in van theory

Photo of the model representing the crime scene of the 14 February 2005 attack after the explosion. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)

THE HAGUE: Defense lawyers for a senior Hezbollah commander accused of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri cast fresh doubts Thursday on a long-accepted narrative of the day of the attack.

The defense claimed there was no conclusive evidence that a large van captured on CCTV cameras minutes before the bombing was in fact an explosives-laden vehicle that shattered Hariri’s convoy.

The prosecution alleges that a Mitsubishi Canter van loaded with 2 tons of explosives was detonated by a suicide bomber as Hariri’s convoy passed near the St. Georges Hotel on Feb. 14, 2005. CCTV footage an hour before the attack showed a large van emerging from the Suleiman Franjieh tunnel on the approach to the hotel, before veering right and outside the camera’s view.

A similar van reappeared nearly an hour later on the same camera, and was picked up on CCTV recordings from the nearby Phoenicia Hotel and HSBC bank, just over a minute ahead of Hariri’s convoy.

After Hariri’s convoy passed along the same road, the debris and light flash from the explosion could be seen in some of the CCTV footage.

The prosecution spent hours in hearings Wednesday and Thursday detailing the path of the “suspicious” van in a second-by-second analysis by Robyn Fraser, the CCTV expert witness, indicating they thought it was the vehicle that carried out the attack.

But Badreddine’s defense challenged the prosecution’s account, showing there was no certainty that the vehicle was involved in Hariri’s killing, or even that it was a Mitsubishi Canter. At their opening statement Monday, the Badreddine defense team challenged the very idea that a truck bomb was used, saying it was likely an underground bomb that destroyed his convoy.

Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Fraser for hours Thursday in the trial’s first cross-examination. “You can’t say conclusively that the vehicle in the CCTV footage was carrying explosives? Or that it played any role in the explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others?” asked defense co-counsel Iain Edwards.

“No, I cannot,” Fraser replied to both questions.

The footage from the HSBC bank surveillance cameras showed what appears to be the Mitsubishi Canter van moving 10 times slower than the traffic along the road where Hariri’s convoy was destroyed.

The former premier’s convoy appears in the footage approximately a minute after the van was seen. Moments later, the camera is almost completely knocked out by the force of the explosion and a cloud of dust engulfs the image.

The prosecution also showed images taken by the HSBC CCTV cameras which depict the moment of the explosion without capturing the actual van being detonated.

Fraser had said the dimensions and structure of the van, as well as the covering on its rear, all appeared to show that it was the same van captured in all the CCTV footage.

Fraser also revealed the prosecution had not asked a vehicle expert to ascertain whether the van shown in all cameras was the same one.

Fraser revealed that a team of German police experts had tried to enhance the image of the van captured by the CCTV cameras in order to see who was in the driver’s cabin, but failed due to the low quality of the footage.Investigators were able to estimate the speed of the van by looking at a pedestrian walking toward the HSBC bank, whose glass windows were shattered by the force of the explosion.

But at the heart of the defense’s argument is the fact that the CCTV footage is of low quality and so it is impossible to know whether the van shown in all three recordings is the same one. The footage also does not reveal whether the van was carrying any explosives.

None of the van’s apparent features, including its size and the tarpaulin covering in the back, were unique, Edwards said.

To prove his point, Edwards unveiled an image of another similar-looking van in front of the Phoenicia Hotel 30 minutes before the blast that had a similar covering on the rear and dimensions to the alleged explosives-laden van.

In response to a question from the defense, Fraser said she could not be certain it was the same vehicle.

A key challenge is the fact that no known CCTV footage showing the actual explosion exists, despite the prevalence of surveillance cameras in the area. The prosecution confirmed during the hearing that they had no such footage.

Other key surveillance footage is also missing near the scene of the attack – none on the road veering right out of the Suleiman Franjieh tunnel that would have showed the van an hour before the explosion, and none on the road leading into the tunnel and away from the St. Georges Hotel.

The Lebanese authorities had not provided the latter footage even after a request from investigators.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2014, on page 1.

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