BEIRUT: Prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon painted Wednesday an ominous and mysterious image of a Hezbollah suspect accused of involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, describing him as a ruthless, cruel operative and a “key player” in the infamous attack.
Hassan Merhi was “a gray man who understood how to operate in the shadows without drawing attention to himself,” senior prosecution counsel Graham Cameron told the court as the trial in the controversial case resumed after a four-month hiatus.
He was also “a committed member of the ultimate goal of the conspiracy, the assassination of one of Lebanon’s most revered figures,” Cameron said.
Merhi’s alleged role in the conspiracy was outlined in intricate detail before the trial chamber as the “principal architect” of a plot to mislead investigators in the aftermath of the bombing.
Cameron was speaking of a claim of responsibility that was aired shortly after Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, in which a man called Ahmad Abu Adass took credit for it on behalf of a group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria. Prosecutors say Abu Adass was coerced since his DNA was never found at the crime scene, and so could not have been the suicide bomber who carried out the attack.
Prosecutors alleged that Merhi was responsible for the tasks of identifying a suitable scapegoat to blame for the attack, the befriending of Abu Adass and luring him away from his family, the preparation of a tape and letter taking false credit for the attack, delivering them to the media and ensuring their broadcast throughout Lebanon.
They said he reported directly to Mustafa Badreddine, a senior military commander in Hezbollah, and worked with two other suspects, Assad Sabra and Hussein Oneissi, to complete the mission.
Prosecutors described Merhi and his collaborators as men who showed “ruthlessness and cruelty” in planning the false claim of responsibility, luring Abu Adass to his likely death in order to mislead investigators.
Cameron painted a picture of an intricate and finely tuned conspiracy that was complex and needed a clear hierarchy and division of labour, with Badreddine the alleged apex of the plot.
Merhi “played a significant and leading role” in what he described as a “criminal team.”
Cameron offered a glimpse into the telecommunications data that the prosecution will use at trial, describing key moments such as Merhi’s accomplice meeting with Abu Adass, and on the day of the attack when Sabra and Oneissi traveled from south Beirut to deliver the tape and claim of responsibility to media outlets.
The hearing was attended by Yasma Fleihan, the widow of MP Bassil Fleihan, who died from the wounds sustained in the attack.
Peter Haynes, the lead lawyer representing the victims at the trial, described Bassil Fleihan as a “brilliant economist” drawn back to Lebanon at Hariri’s behest in the “profound belief that that man could fashion a future for his mother country.”On the day of the bombing, he accompanied Hariri in his car. Haynes described Fleihan’s grievous wounds, as his wife Yasma sat to his right.
“His body was burned to the third degree, over 95 percent of it,” he said. “He quite literally had no skin.”
Fleihan was identified only through his wedding ring and the fact that he kept repeating his wife’s name, Haynes said.
Fleihan was flown to Paris and underwent treatment, but succumbed to the toxins that infected his body in the explosion.
Haynes described Yasma’s appearance before the court as an act of courage, saying the Fleihan family had remained in Europe in “perpetual fear.”
“It was important for me to be there,” Yasma Fleihan told The Daily Star by telephone after the hearing. “We need to know the truth.”
When asked how she felt as lawyers laid out her husband’s suffering, she said, “It was like yesterday.”
“You are recalling every single moment,” she said. “You just learn how to live with the pain.”
Fleihan said she was pleased that for the first time there was an effort to deal with political assassinations.
Senior prosecution counsel Alexander Milne laid out details aimed at proving the attack was the work of a suicide bomber who detonated an explosives-laden Mitsubishi truck as the premier’s convoy drove by.
Milne said the analysis of the bomb crater was consistent with the theory that Hariri was killed by an above-ground truck bomb.
The precise detonation of the bomb, just as Hariri’s car passed by, showed that it was likely triggered by someone inside the car. Moreover, no evidence of wires or cables from the blast scene have ever been found.