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UN-backed court to issue verdicts in Lebanon's Hariri case

BEIRUT – More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts this week in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing, which deeply divided the tiny country.

The verdicts on Tuesday at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, based in a village on the outskirts of the Dutch city of The Hague, are expected to further add to soaring tensions in Lebanon, two weeks after a catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port that killed nearly 180 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed thousands of homes in the Lebanese capital.

Unlike the blast that killed Hariri and 21 others on Feb. 14, 2005, the Aug. 4 explosion was believed to be a result of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that accidentally ignited at Beirut's port. While the cause of the fire that provided the trigger is still not clear, Hezbollah, which maintains huge influence over Lebanese politics, is being sucked into the public fury directed at the country’s ruling politicians.

Even before the devastating Beirut port blast, the country’s leaders were concerned about violence after the verdicts. Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician at the time, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group.

Tensions between Sunni and Shiites in the Middle East have fueled deadly conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to a smaller scale in Lebanon. 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.

One analyst believes the lengthy investigation and trial have rendered the result almost redundant. The defendants remain at large.

Michael Young of Carnegie Middle East Center wrote recently that the verdicts “will seem like little more than a postscript to an out-of-print book.”

“The U.N. investigation was glowingly referred to once as a mechanism to end impunity. It has proven to be exactly the contrary,” Young wrote, saying those believed to have carried out the assassination “risk almost nothing today.”

But for others, especially those more closely linked to the violence that has plagued Lebanon, the verdicts still carry significance.

“It’s going to be a great, great moment not only for me as a victim but for me as a Lebanese, as an Arab and as an international citizen looking for justice everywhere,” said prominent former legislator and ex-Cabinet Minister Marwan Hamadeh, who was seriously wounded in a blast four months before Hariri’s assassination. Hamadeh said those who killed Hariri were behind the attempt on his life. The tribunal has indicted one of the suspects in Hariri’s assassination with involvement in the attempt on Hamadeh’s life.

Hamadeh resigned as a member of parliament in protest a day after the Beirut port blast.

Hariri was killed by a suicide truck bomb on a seaside boulevard in Beirut that killed him and 21 others, and wounded 226 people.

The assassination was seen by many in Lebanon as the work of Syria. It stunned and deeply divided the country, which has since been split between a Western-backed coalition and another supported by Damascus and Iran. Syria has denied having a hand in Hariri’s killing. Following post-Hariri assassination protests, Damascus was forced to withdraw thousands of troops from Lebanon, ending a three-decade domination of its smaller neighbor.

The tribunal was set up in 2007 under a U.N. Security Council resolution because deep divisions in Lebanon blocked parliamentary approval of the court that operates on a hybrid system of Lebanese and international law. The investigation and trial cost about $1 billion, of which Lebanon paid 49% while other nations paid the rest.

Initially, five suspects were tried in absentia in the case, all of them Hezbollah members. One of the group’s top military commanders Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria in 2016 and charges against him were dropped.

The other 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, and face maximum sentences of life imprisonment if convicted. Sentences will not be announced Tuesday but will be determined at later hearings.

The four defendants, however, are unlikely to serve any prison time — they have never been detained despite international arrest warrants and Hezbollah has vowed never to hand over any suspects.

Even if they are all convicted, Hezbollah as a group will not officially be blamed as the tribunal only accuses individuals, not groups or states.

Prosecutors based their indictments on telecommunications data of cellular telephones that the suspects allegedly used to track Hariri’s movements starting weeks before the assassination until the explosion occurred. The tribunal heard evidence from 297 witnesses during the trial, which started in 2014 and spanned 415 days of hearings.

Omar Nashabe, who served as a consultant for the defense team in the tribunal for about five years, said that since there was no consensus in Lebanon over the tribunal and parliament did not approve it, the trial “may not be the best process to reach justice in such cases.”

He said that the people of Lebanon are divided between some who want the tribunal to confirm their suspicions about the perpetrators and others who continue to see the court as part of a wider conspiracy to discredit Hezbollah.

“Therefore this tribunal is doomed to fail because of the lack of consensus,” Nashabe said, adding that if the defense appeals the case the verdict will not mark the end.

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. Nasrallah warned against attempts to exploit the verdicts internally and externally in order to target the group.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the late Hariri, has said he will make a statement regarding the verdicts after they are made public. Asked about concerns over repercussions of the verdict, he said “justice must prevail regardless of the cost.”

Since the assassination in 2005, several top Syrian and Hezbollah security officials have been killed, in what some supporters of the tribunal say were the result of liquidations to hide evidence.

Hamadeh, the legislator, called such deaths “Godly justice,” adding that “we don’t know how. Some say they were liquidated by their own teams, some say the Syrian regime got rid of them to put the suspicion and the doubts away, some said internal feuds.”

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Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.