No smoking gun in Lebanon's Hariri murder case

AP News
Posted: Aug 17, 2011 2:25 PM
No smoking gun in Lebanon's Hariri murder case

A long-awaited international indictment unsealed Wednesday offers no direct evidence linking four Hezbollah suspects to the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, despite years of painstaking investigations.

The indictment, which relies heavily on circumstantial evidence such as telephone records to link the men to the crime, played into efforts by the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah to discredit a case that has consumed and divided Lebanon for more than six years.

"The text in our hands now based on analysis and not clear evidence," Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech. "Those who were indicted should not be called charged but unjustly treated."

Much of the information contained in the indictment had been leaked to the media over the past two years, which Nasrallah said was a sign that the probe was tainted beyond repair.

Lebanon's most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah has vowed never to turn over the suspects, although a trial may be held in absentia.

"The full story will, however, only unfold in the courtroom, where an open, public, fair and transparent trial will render a final verdict," said Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor at the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The suicide truck bomb that killed Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, was one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

In the six years since his death, the investigation has sharpened some of Lebanon's most intractable issues: the role of Hezbollah, which commands an arsenal far greater than the national army, and the country's dark history of sectarian divisions and violence.

Hariri was one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders; Hezbollah is a Shiite group.

Prosecutors analyzed a vast network of telephone records to link the "assassination team" to the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, according to the 47-page indictment. Investigators tracked the movements of the suspects using their phones' locations as recorded by cell phone towers.

The indictment says the records showed "a coordinated use of these phones to carry out the assassination." According to the records, there was a flurry of calls shortly before Hariri's murder, but they stopped two minutes before the explosion.

The phones were never used again.

The indictment also says the assassins tracked Hariri's movements over several weeks to establish the routes and movements of his convoy and the location of his vehicle in it. On the day of the murder, they detonated some 2,500 kilograms (5,510 pounds) of explosives packed into a Mitsubishi van parked near a hotel along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront.

Prosecutors acknowledge in the indictment's preamble that they have no direct evidence linking the suspects to the attack. The file relies to a large extent on circumstantial evidence "which works logically by inference and deduction," the indictment said.

Media reports last year suggested that the Hariri case would hinge on telephone records, and Nasrallah has worked to cast doubt on the security of the system.

Lebanese officials have confirmed that Israel has penetrated Lebanon's telecommunications networks and has great control over them. In 2010, authorities detained two senior employees of one of the country's two cellular telecommunication companies on suspicion of spying for Israel.

The telecommunications minister at the time confirmed that Israel was able to infiltrate Lebanon's mobile telecommunications network and could manipulate phone calls and short messages.

Nasrallah has said Israel bugged the mobile phones of Hezbollah members, allowing it to make false phone calls, send false text messages and track the users' movements.

The indictment alleges the plot's mastermind is Mustafa Badreddine, a Hezbollah commander and the suspected bomb maker who blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans.

The other suspects are Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra; and Hassan Oneissi, who changed his name to Hassan Issa.

Prosecutors alleged Ayyash led the assassination team and the two other suspects were responsible for a false claim of responsibility intended to throw investigators off track.

Hariri's son, opposition leader Saad Hariri, urged Nasrallah to cooperate with the tribunal.

"What is required of Hezbollah's leadership is simply to announce their disengagement with the accused. This stance will go down in history," he said in a statement released by his office.

Hezbollah has always had serious muscle, but the group has amassed unprecedented political clout in the government, having toppled the previous administration in January when Saad Hariri _ who was prime minister at the time _ refused to renounce the tribunal investigating his father's death.

The new premier, Najib Mikati, was Hezbollah's pick for the post.


Corder reported from Leidschendam, Netherlands.