The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has found Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty for co-conspiring the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The STL, however, acquitted three others also charged for the murder, including the attempted murder of 200 people injured in a bomb blast.
Background of the Case
On the 14th of February 2005, former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri along with 21 others were killed in a bomb blast in Beirut. Rafik Hariri’s assassination took place against the backdrop of his power struggle with Syria.
Syrian influence in Lebanese politics had become so strong that the Lebanese Parliament was almost compelled to amend its constitution to allow Émile Lahoud, at the time, who was the running commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces to run for the presidency in 1998. This marked the beginning of the chain of events that eventually led to the assassination of Rafik Hariri. President Lahoud, who was a close ally to Syria, had a strained relationship with Prime Minister Hariri during his term in office. As a result, PM Hariri’s ability to run the government and to carry out his policies sometimes went to the point of paralysis. This consequently led to distrust against him by the Syrian regime, particularly, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When President Émile Lahoud’s term came to an end in 2004, he sought to extend his term, which by default of the Lebanese Constitution, required a Constitutional amendment. In a visit to Damascus in late August, PM Hariri informed his cabinet that President Émile Lahoud was a reflection of President Bashar al-Assad in Lebanon and that if he were to be removed from the presidency, Lebanon would be “destroyed”. Subsequently, the constitution was amended extending the presidency for another three years.
Before the vote on the extension of the presidency, the Security Council adopted resolution 1559, on the 2nd of September 2004, which called upon “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” and declared its support for a “free and fair electoral process in Lebanon’s upcoming presidential elections”. PM Hariri, who was close to the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia, was widely believed to have actively supported this resolution.
On the 9th of September 2004, PM Hariri announced his resignation, shortly after Émile Lahoud was sworn as President a second time. Before his resignation, those who had called for a review of the Syrian-Lebanese relations in line with the Security Council resolution 1559, mostly Christians politicians, joined the Sunni, Druze and Maronite representatives who had built a bloc of coalitions, which represented almost all political and religious communities except for the pro-Syrian Shi’ite Amal and Hezbollah. This bloc was on its way to winning a clear majority in the election. On the 14th of February, PM Hariri, the perceived architect of this new power block was assassinated. Fearing political pressure would bury investigations and result in an improper trial, the Lebanese government opted for an UN-based court, thus establishing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2009.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon
The Statute of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon establishes a narrow jurisdiction. It has jurisdiction only over individuals responsible for the attack that killed former PM Rafik Hariri, and those individuals that are responsible for carrying out other attacks connected to the attack on the 14th of February 2005. Attacks would be deemed to be “connected” if they share elements such as “criminal intent, the purpose behind the attacks, the nature of the victims targeted, the pattern of the attacks (modus operandi) and the perpetrators”.
To assist the Lebanese government in their investigation of the attack that killed PM Hariri, the Security Council had established an international independent investigation commission.
As of March 2008, the commission has since expanded the STL’s scope to twenty other attacks, in addition to the Hariri case. The investigations in itself have involved a series of terrorist attacks that have caused deaths of 61 people and injured at least 494 people. These additional attacks also form the jurisdiction of the STL.
Unlike other international mixed tribunals that apply both domestic and international law, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon only applies the Lebanese Criminal Code as substantive law. The applicable provisions of the Lebanese Criminal Code include terrorism, crimes, and offenses against life and personal integrity, illicit association, and failure to report crimes and offenses.
The Ayyash et al verdict
The accused were Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra. According to the prosecution, the accused participated in a conspiracy, with others, including the former accused Mustafa Amine Badreddine (reportedly dead), to commit a terrorist act – to assassinate the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
On the 18th of August 2020, the STL Trial Chamber pronounced its Judgment in the Ayyash et al case. The Trial Chamber unanimously found the accused Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty beyond reasonable doubt of all counts against him in the indictment. The Trial Chamber also found the other accused, namely, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra to be not guilty of all charges against them. The trial was held in absentia – the accused were not physically present in the proceedings.
The STL found the evidence connecting Ayyash with the attack on PM Hariri was his mobile phone. Without this, there would be no evidence linking him with the explosion on the 14th of February 2005. His mobile functioned as a closed network that ceased operation immediately before the attack, after having been used in the previous month in the surveillance of PM Hariri and his convoy’s movements.
Under Arts 2 and 3(1)(a) of the Statute of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and Art 212 of the Lebanese Criminal Code, Ayyash was found guilty on 5 counts; namely, (1) – conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act (Arts 270 and 314 of the Lebanese Criminal Code); (2) – committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device (Arts 314 of the Lebanese Criminal Code); (3) – intentional homicide of Rafik Hariri with premeditation by using explosive materials (Arts 547 and 549 (1) and (7) of the Lebanese Criminal Code); (4) intentional homicide of 21 people in addition to the intentional homicide of Rafik Hariri with premeditation by using explosive materials (Arts 547 and 549 (1) and (7) of the Lebanese Criminal Code); and (5) attempted intentional homicide of 226 persons in addition to the intentional homicide of Rafik Hariri with premeditation by using explosive materials (Arts 200, 547 and 549 (1) and (7) of the Lebanese Criminal Code).
The four defendants were tried in absentia and their current whereabouts remain unknown. The investigation and the trial in itself have taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. Sentencing will be carried out later though Ayyash is likely to face up to life imprisonment. The verdict, although a long-awaited one, symbolizes justice for the families of the deceased and all those affected by the attack.
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