Verdict looms in killing of Lebanon ex-PM Hariri
A UN-backed tribunal will give its verdict on Friday on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, but questions will remain over a long and costly trial whose suspects remain at large.
Four alleged members of the Shia Muslim fundamentalist group Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands over the huge Beirut suicide bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.
The judgement harks back to an event that changed the face of the Middle East, with Hariri's assassination triggering a wave of demonstrations that pushed Syrian forces out of Lebanon after 30 years.
The court is billed as the world's first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, and it has cost at least $600 million since it opened its doors in 2009 following a UN Security Council resolution. But the tribunal faces doubts over its credibility with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand over the defendants, and the case relying almost entirely on mobile phone records.
And while Hariri's son Saad looked forward to a "day of truth and justice", many Lebanese people are meanwhile more preoccupied with the country's economic crisis, the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the judgement "will be delivered from the courtroom with partial virtual participation" at 0900 GMT on Friday.
Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organisation
Hezbollah, or Party of God, was conceived by Muslim clerics in the 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. The Shia group has a political and military wing.
National support against Israel: Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an amalgamation of Shia militias and played a major role in the Lebanese civil war. It used guerrilla warfare to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon – Israel withdrew in 2000. Israel and Hezbollah fought another war in 2006. Its defence of Lebanon against Israel won it cross-sectarian support and acceptance in Lebanese society
Backed by Iran: since its creation, Hezbollah has received military, financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Today, Hezbollah's military wing is more powerful than Lebanon's own army and has become a major regional paramilitary force
Political apparatus: Hezbollah turned its focus to politics following the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It represents a large section of the Lebanese Shia population and is allied with other sectarian groups, including Christians. Their political development has mostly come under Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), who became the group's leader in 1992
Armed wing: unlike other parties in Lebanon's multi-sided 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah did not disband its armed wing. Some Lebanese political groups, such as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, want Hezbollah to put down its arms. Hezbollah argues its militant wing is necessary to defend against Israel and other external threats
Terror group? A number of countries and bodies, including the United States, Israel, Canada, the Arab League and, most recently, Germany, consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. However, Australia and many European Union countries differentiate between its legitimate political activities and its militant wing
Hezbollah enters Syria's civil war: Hezbollah has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war. Its entrance into the war helped save Assad, one of its chief patrons; secured weapons supply routes from Syria and formed a buffer zone around Lebanon against Sunni militant groups it feared would take over Syria. As a result it has won considerable support from Shia communities in Lebanon
Sectarianism: Lebanon has long been at the centre of regional power struggles, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Hezbollah's military and political ascendancy, as well as its intervention in Syria, have also helped stoke Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions in Lebanon and across the region
Renewed conflict with Israel? Iran and Hezbollah have increased their political and military strength through the war in Syria. Israel views this as a threat and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iran/Hezbollah targets in Syria. Israel has vowed to not let Iran and Hezbollah create a permanent presence in Syria. There is growing concern of another war between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw in Iran. (Author: Chase Winter)
The four defendants went on trial in 2014 on charges including the "intentional homicide" of Hariri and 21 others, attempted homicide of 226 people wounded in the bombing, and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
Salim Ayyash, 56, is accused of leading the team that carried out the bombing, which involved a truck packed full of explosives that detonated near Hariri's motorcade on February 14, 2005.
Assad Sabra, 43, and Hussein Oneissi, 46, allegedly sent a fake video to the Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group.
Hassan Habib Merhi, 54, is accused of general involvement in the plot.
The alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was indicted by the court but is believed to have died while fighting with the Syrian regime in May 2016.
The surviving suspects face life imprisonment if convicted, although sentencing will be carried out at a later date.
"If a convicted person is at liberty and not present the trial chamber shall issue a warrant of arrest," a court spokesman said.
Both the prosecution and defence can appeal the judgment and sentence, while if a defendant is eventually arrested he can request a retrial.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a "severe threat" to Syrian control of the country.
Hariri was Lebanon's Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria's role as power-broker in the country.
The case was "circumstantial" but "compelling", prosecutors said, resting on mobile phone records allegedly showing the suspects conducting intense surveillance of Hariri from just after his resignation until minutes before the blast.
Saad Hariri, who later went on to become prime minister like his father, said in a statement issued by his office last week that he had "never lost hope in international justice and the exposure of the truth".
"We in the Future Movement look to the seventh of August, to be a day of truth and justice for Lebanon," he said. He called on supporters to demonstrate "patience" and avoid social media disputes about the verdict.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab meanwhile called on people to avoid "fishing in troubled waters" and said authorities "must be ready to deal with the fallout" of the judgment.
The verdict will not be the end of the tribunal's work, as it opened a second case last year charging prime suspect Ayyash with terrorism and murder over deadly attacks on politicians in 2004 and 2005. (AFP)