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Lebanon News

Merhi case sheds light on search for suspects

A picture of Hassan Habib Merhi released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. (The Daily Star/STL, HO)

Name: Hassan Habib Merhi

Charges:

Conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act;

Being an accomplice to the felony of committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device;

Being an accomplice to the felony of intentional homicide of Rafik Hariri with premeditation by using explosive materials;

Being an accomplice to the felony of intentional homicide of 21 other persons with premeditation by using explosive materials;

Being an accomplice to the felony of attempted intentional homicide of 226 persons with premeditation by using explosive materials

Date of birth: Dec. 12, 1965

Place of birth: Beirut

Nationality: Lebanese.Hassan Merhi is accused of complicity in both the surveillance of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri ahead of the bombing that killed him and orchestrating what prosecutors believe to be a false claim of responsibility by an extremist group after the attack.

Prosecutors accuse Merhi of coordinating the preparation of the false claim of responsibility with Mustafa Badreddine, the alleged leader of the assassination cell and a top Hezbollah operative. He also allegedly discussed the preparations for the bombing with another suspect, Salim Ayyash.

But Merhi is also accused of working with the two other suspects in the case, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, to find a man who would pose before the camera and claim responsibility for the attack. That man was identified later as Ahmad Abu Adass, who appeared in a video taking credit for the bombing on behalf of a group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.

The STL indicted Merhi in July 2013, and the indictment was delivered confidentially to the Lebanese government on Aug 6. The accusations against him were made public in October, and the court’s trial chamber decided to try him in absentia in December, after the Lebanese authorities failed to arrest him.

Merhi was identified using a technique known as co-location, where a personal phone and a phone allegedly used to prepare for the attack are linked to the same individual. Investigators can do that if the two phones are repeatedly present in the same area and use the same cell tower to make phone calls or send text messages.

Defense lawyers are planning to challenge the validity of this technique in court.

Merhi used a telephone designated as “Purple 231,” which prosecutors say was part of the “purple network” of telephones that were used by operatives in planning the false claim of responsibility.

But investigators were able to link the phone to Merhi because another mobile that was used by Merhi and his family and registered under his name on a number of official documents was repeatedly present in the same immediate area as the phone allegedly used to plot the attack.

Merhi does not have a registered death certificate, which means the court officially believes he is still alive. The STL has also obtained his personal status records, which include parents’ names, marital status and religion, among others. Merhi was registered in the Zoqaq al-Blat electoral list, and owns real estate in the Nabatieh village of Ain Qana.

He obtained a passport as late as October 2007, and official Lebanese travel records show his last trip abroad was in late 2002 to Syria.

Merhi’s case offers a tantalizing glimpse into the tribunal’s efforts to arrest the suspects being tried before the tribunal – members of Hezbollah that the party’s chief, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, pledged to protect.

Court records show Hezbollah actively prevented Lebanese investigators working with the court from accessing Merhi’s home in Burj al-Barajneh in the southern suburbs.

Merhi is described in the indictment as a “supporter of Hezbollah,” although prosecutors have never explained why his party affiliation is relevant to the case.

Lebanese criminal investigators acting under the prosecutor general were denied access to neighborhoods in Beirut by Hezbollah officials in their search for Merhi, and government investigators had to repeatedly ask for permission from the party before attempting to interview him or post a wanted poster at his residence.

Merhi’s indictment came days before a car bomb last August rocked the neighborhood of Ruwaiss in the Beirut southern suburbs, where Hezbollah enjoys popular support.

The bombing, which claimed 30 lives, prompted the group to install barricades and security checkpoints around the suburbs.

Investigators at the Lebanese Central Criminal Investigation Section were denied access to the southern suburbs because of Hezbollah’s security measures, according to a trial chamber order that details why it decided to try Merhi in absentia.

The officers contacted Hezbollah’s security committee to gain access to Merhi’s home, but the party denied the request.

CCIS officers also held several meetings with Hezbollah security officials with the aim of posting the indictment at Merhi’s home, but they were denied access.

According to the document, a party official “told them that they could not go there because Mr. Merhi’s family was very upset that his name had been circulated in the media as an accused in the case of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his companions.”

Lebanese investigators had coordinated with Hezbollah in an attempt to interview Merhi as a suspect in June 2012, but he was not present at his home in Burj al-Barajneh.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

The STL indicted Merhi in July 2013, and the indictment was delivered confidentially to the Lebanese government on Aug 6 .

Investigators were able to link the phone to Merhi because another mobile that was used by Merhi and his family and registered under his name on a number of official documents was repeatedly present in the same immediate area as the phone allegedly used to plot the attack.

Merhi's case offers a tantalizing glimpse into the tribunal's efforts to arrest the suspects being tried before the tribunal – members of Hezbollah that the party's chief, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, pledged to protect.

Court records show Hezbollah actively prevented Lebanese investigators working with the court from accessing Merhi's home in Burj al-Barajneh in the southern suburbs.

Merhi is described in the indictment as a "supporter of Hezbollah," although prosecutors have never explained why his party affiliation is relevant to the case.

Lebanese investigators had coordinated with Hezbollah in an attempt to interview Merhi as a suspect in June 2012, but he was not present at his home in Burj al-Barajneh.


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