LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — The presiding judge at a UN-backed tribunal in the Netherlands began delivering verdicts Tuesday in the trial in absentia of four members of the Hezbollah militant group accused of involvement in the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, saying the evidence against them was “almost entirely circumstantial.”
The verdicts were delayed by nearly two weeks as a mark of respect for victims of another devastating explosion — the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port. The Aug. 4 blast killed around 180 people, injured more than 6,000, left a quarter of a million with homes unfit to live in and plunged a nation already reeling from economic and social malaise even deeper into crisis.
Presiding Judge David Re called for a minute’s silence to start the hearing to honor victims of the blast and their families as well as those made homeless by the port blast.
He said the written judgment in the long-running trial amounted to more than 2,600 pages with some 13,000 footnotes.
Sketching the complex political backdrop for the assassination, Re said that in the months before his death, Hariri was a supporter or reducing the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in Syria.
Judges were “of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies,” Re said. But he added that “there was no evidence” that the Hezbollah leadership or Syria was involved in the truck bombing.
Guilty verdicts could compound tensions in the tiny country. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time of his Feb. 14, 2005, assassination, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group.
The trial centered on the alleged roles of four Hezbollah members in the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and wounded 226 people. Prosecutors based their case largely on data from mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute the bombing.
Without the phone data there would be no case against the four suspects, Re said, as he began explaining the complex investigation into the telecom networks prosecutors say the suspects used.
Re said that the telecom evidence in the case was “almost entirely circumstantial.”
However, another judge, Janet Nosworthy, later said that judges had ruled that four different networks of mobile phones “were interconnected and coordinated with each other, and operated as covert networks at the relevant times.”
During the trial, which started in 2014 and spanned 415 days of hearings, the tribunal in Leidschendam, near The Hague, heard evidence from 297 witnesses.
Initially, five suspects were tried, all of them Hezbollah members. Charges against one of the group’s top military commanders, Mustafa Badreddine, were dropped after he was killed in Syria in 2016.
The remaining suspects are Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa and Hassan Habib Merhi. They are charged with offenses including conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
If they are convicted, hearings will be held at a later date to determine their sentences. As the UN-backed court has no death sentence, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
None of the men is every likely to serve time as Hezbollah has vowed not to hand over any suspects. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can appeal the verdicts.
The assassination was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria, a charge Damascus denies.
Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah — which denies involvement — calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group.
Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former prime minister, is attending the day-long delivery of the judgment and was one of four victims present in the courtroom for the hearing.
On Tuesday morning, the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya prepped viewers for the verdict, showing a slick 3-D reenactment of the bombing.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah last week insisted on the innocence of the suspects regardless of the verdicts. “For us it will be as if they were never issued,” he said of the verdicts.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
Image: FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2014 file photo, shows an exterior view of the Special Tribunal for the assassination of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Leidschendam, Netherlands. More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2020, in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing. (AP Photo/Toussaint Kluiters, Pool, File)