Hezbollah Rejects Assassination Charges, Refuses to Cooperate With U.N.-Backed Tribunal
(CNSNews.com) – Two weeks before Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated government assumes the presidency of the U.N. Security Council, Hezbollah on Wednesday reiterated its refusal to cooperate with a U.N.-backed tribunal that has indicted four of its members in the most politically charged assassination in Lebanese history.
Hours after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) unsealed its indictment relating to the 2005 suicide bombing that killed former premier Rafik Hariri, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah rejected the accusations, saying the entire case was based on “coincidental telephone communications.”
Speaking in a nationally televised speech, Nasrallah said it was unacceptable that “four of our honorable brothers in the resistance” were being accused, and repeated his earlier allegations that Israel was the real culprit.
Hariri’s son Saad Hariri, also a former prime minister, urged Hezbollah to sever ties with the four accused men and secure their handover to the Netherlands-based STL.
The tribunal released a redacted version of the indictment several weeks after a deadline passed for the Lebanese government to arrest and surrender the suspects, in line with the 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution that established the STL.
The tribunal will now likely hold a trial in absentia in the coming months.
Earlier this week, Saad Hariri expressed concern that Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, may be sheltering the fugitives. Iran has backed Nasrallah’s claims that the STL is a plot by the U.S. and “Zionists” to discredit Hezbollah and destabilize Lebanon.
The long-running dispute over the STL investigation saw Hezbollah bring down Saad Hariri’s government early this year in what Hariri called a “coup.” It was replaced by a government led by a Hezbollah-endorsed prime minister and with Hezbollah and its allies enjoying a majority in the cabinet (18 out of 30 seats).
That government will on September 1 take over the rotating presidency of the Security Council, chairing meetings and setting an agenda for the 15-member body.
In its brief reaction to the unsealing of the STL indictment, the State Department did not directly urge Hezbollah or the Lebanese government to surrender the suspects, but called on the government “to continue to meet its obligations under international law to support the Special Tribunal.”
Terrorist training, affiliation
The STL indictment does not accuse Hezbollah itself of being behind the car bomb that killed Hariri and 21 others in downtown Beirut on February 14, 2005.
It points out, however, that the four accused are all supporters of Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah’s military wing has in the past “been implicated in terrorist acts.”
“Persons trained by the military wing have the capability to carry out a terrorist attack, whether or not on its behalf,” it says.
Also noted is the fact that the two key accused, Mustafa Badreddine and Salim Ayyash, are both brothers-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, who was Hezbollah’s security chief and one of the world’s most wanted terrorists until he was killed in a 2008 bombing in Damascus.
Badreddine, who assumed Mughniyah’s role in Hezbollah after his death, is accused in the indictment of masterminding the Hariri assassination plot; Ayyash is alleged to have carried out the operation.
“Based on their experience, training and affiliation with Hezbollah … it is reasonable to conclude that Badreddine and Ayyash had the capability to undertake the 14 Feb 2005 attack,” the indictment states.
The other two wanted men, co-conspirators named as Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, are accused of having coordinated a false claim of responsibility made hours after the bombing, on behalf of a fictional group named “Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria” – presumably an attempt to deflect attention away from the actual perpetrators.
That part of the alleged operation involved the recruiting of a 22 year-old Palestinian, Ahmad Abu Adass, to make a videotape in which he claimed to be the suicide bomber. Hours after the attack, a copy of the tape was made available to Al-Jazeera.
According to the indictment, Abu Adass disappeared a month before the assassination. Forensic examination of the remains of the actual suicide bomber found that he was not Abu Adass.
A large part of the case against the four accused is based on the piecing together of several interconnected cell phone networks, each used for different parts of the plot.
The phones in the key network, dubbed the “red network,” were registered under false names and all activated within half an hour of each other, some six weeks before the attack. According to cell phone tower data, 33 calls were made between “red” phones in downtown Beirut in the two hours before the bombing. The last call made on the “red” phones before the network went dead – never to be used again – was recorded at 12:53 on Feb. 14.
At 12:55, the Mitsubishi Canter van packed with 25,000 kilograms of TNT exploded near Hariri’s convoy, killing him, eight members of his convoy and 13 members of the public, and injuring 231 others.
The indictment does not offer any views on motives for the assassination. It also does not include any evidence implicating Syria, Hezbollah’s close ally and sponsor along with Iran.
Earlier U.N. investigations pointed to the involvement of senior Syrian officials in the murder plot, and suspicions of a Syrian hand prompted the Bush administration to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Damascus.
Syria dominated Lebanon for decades, and Rafik Hariri opposed the presence of 15,000 Syrian troops in his country. He was also locked in a dispute with President Bashar Assad over Assad’s demands that the tenure of a Syrian-supported Lebanese president be extended.
In the aftermath of the assassination Assad was finally pressured, by the U.S. and others, to withdraw Syrian forces.