NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A Cyprus criminal court found a Hezbollah member on Thursday guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the east Mediterranean Island in a decision that could raise pressure on the European Union to reconsider its stance toward the Islamic militant group.
The three-judge bench in the coastal town of Limassol found Swedish-Lebanese citizen Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, guilty on five of eight charges including conspiracy and participation in a criminal organization.
Yaacoub had denied of being part of any plot to attack Israelis, but the court rejected his defense that he didn't know what the information that he was ordered to collect for Hezbollah would be used for.
The court said there can be no "innocent explanation" of Yaacoub's actions which he "should have logically known" were linked to a criminal act.
Yaacoub admitted in court to being a loyal Hezbollah member and that he was ordered by his shadowy handler in Lebanon — whom he only knew as Aiman — to collect information. The information included the arrival times of Israeli Arkia airlines flight IZ167 from Israel to Cyprus' main airport as well as hotels in the coastal resorts where Israelis are known to stay. Cyprus is popular with Israeli tourists, especially those seeking civil marriages. He also recorded license plate numbers of busses ferrying Arkia passengers from the airport.
He said he used his Swedish passport at the end of 2011 to go to Cyprus where he took photographs and made sketches of hospital and a police station and was told to look for Cypriot restaurants serving kosher food, but found none. Yaacoub said he handed all the information to Aiman on his return to Lebanon.
He admitted to receiving a monthly salary from Hezbollah and undergoing military training at a camp in Lebanon's mountains, saying that he was ferried there along with a dozen or so other trainees in a van with curtains so that they couldn't identify their location.
"The defendant's actions lend to him and to the organization the purpose of committing criminal acts ... making the organization a criminal one since it's not a precondition of the law to prove the committing of a criminal actions, but the purpose of committing them," a summary of the court's 80-page decision said.
Yaacoub said he primarily travelled to Cyprus on business to buy local fruit juice but prosecutors dismissed that as a cover storyDefense attorney Antonis Georgiades said his client had no intention of harming anyone and he's considering an appeal after the court passes sentence at a later date. Georgiades said the charges carry a maximum 10 years in prison and a 50,000-euro fine.
He also admitted in court to acting as a courier for Hezbollah in France, the Netherlands and Turkey. But the court said it wasn't sufficiently proven that those missions intended to target Israelis and that it would limit its decision to the defendant's actions in Cyprus.
Yaacoub was arrested last July just days before a July 18 bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. Bulgarian authorities have accused Hezbollah of mounting the attack, although Cypriot prosecutors have not sought to connect Yaacoub with the bombing.
The United States has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but the 27-nation European Union has not and Yaacoub's conviction may push EU officials to take another look at how they view the group.