Defense in Hariri case: Prosecutor has no evidence

AP News
Posted: Jan 17, 2014 12:27 PM

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Defense lawyers for four suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said Friday prosecutors have no valid evidence against the alleged bombers and have presented no possible motive for the truck bombing that killed him and 22 others.

The defense comments came at a news conference after the second day of the trial at a U.N.-backed tribunal on the outskirts of The Hague.

Lawyers for the four suspects, whom prosecutors say are supporters of the Shiite group Hezbollah, are scheduled to make opening statements Monday.

The suspects themselves are being tried in their absence at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, because they haven't been arrested nearly nine years after a huge truck bomb was detonated Feb. 14, 2005, on a seaside road in Beirut.

But their court-appointed lawyers signaled they will mount a robust defense against a prosecution case built largely around records for mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute a bombing which sent shockwaves through Lebanon.

Prosecutors are relying on a web of timings and locations of calls they say were made by the bombers as they tracked Hariri in the months, weeks, days and minutes before his assassination.

But the records don't include taped conversations or even text messages, said Antoine Korkmaz, who is representing the alleged mastermind Mustafa Badreddine.

"There is not a shred of evidence," he told reporters.

Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, a French lawyer representing suspect Hassan Oneissi, added that prosecutors had presented no possible motive during their opening statement that took a day and a half.

"It is quite surprising to see ... this crime, for the time being, seems bereft of any motive," he said. "The prosecutor has put forward no reason" for the bombing. "I am struck that after nine years you do not have the wherewithal to explain that."

Hezbollah denies involvement in the murder and the group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has denounced the court as a conspiracy by his archenemies — the U.S. and Israel.

Hariri, who also held Saudi citizenship, was one of Lebanon's most influential Sunni leaders, with wide connections in the Arab world and international community.

Syria initially was suspected of involvement in the assassination, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of Lebanon. Syria has denied any role, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations, dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," which helped put an end to Syria's 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor.

Earlier Friday, lawyers representing victims of the bombing said the trial could help break a cycle of impunity for political slayings in Lebanon.

Lawyer Mohammad Mattar told judges their court "can restore the faith of the Lebanese people in justice."

Among nine victims in court was Hariri's son, Saad, himself also a former prime minister.

Hariri "sits here not as a politician or former head of state, but as a son who lost a father," British lawyer Peter Haynes said.

Other victims included a mother whose son, one of Hariri's bodyguards, was killed in the blast, and workers from nearby office buildings injured when the explosion blew out windows. In total, 65 victims will be represented in the case; 16 who were injured and 49 whose family members were killed.

Prosecutors wrapped up their opening statement by detailing the movements of the alleged assassins based on what investigators say are their mobile phone records in the final minutes of Hariri's life. Prosecutors claim a flurry of calls were made by the plotters just before the truck bomb exploded and then the phones went silent.

Lebanon has a history of political assassinations for which no one has ever been held accountable.

Victims' lawyer Nada Abdelsater-Abusamra told judges that the tribunal could change that lawlessness "by ending impunity and restoring basic human rights to the people of Lebanon."