Where does STL verdict leave Lebanon's search for accountability?

Where does STL verdict leave Hezbollah and the search for accountability in Lebanon?
7 min read
01 Sep, 2020
Comment: Establishing the truth behind Hariri's killing and a string of other assassinations is an important step towards reconciliation, as Lebanon grapples with its past and present, writes Kareem Shaheen.
The STL has indicted Ayyash in three other assassination attempts in Lebanon [Getty]
On 18 August, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) announced its verdict in one of the most consequential political events in the country's modern history - the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February, 2005, in a massive truck bomb explosion.

The verdict was the culmination of 15 years of investigations, political and courtroom drama, the stakes underlined by other political assassinations that continued to rock Lebanon even after the outbreak of revolution and civil war in neighbouring Syria.

The STL found Salim Jamil Ayyash, a Hezbollah operative, guilty of conspiring to murder the Lebanese premier. Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah's former military chief, had been indicted in the case but was no longer on trial because he died in Syria in 2016.

Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Sabra and Hussein Oneissi, three other members of the group accused of orchestrating a false claim of responsibility for the attack, were deemed not guilty due to lack of evidence. The trial was held in absentia because Hezbollah vowed not to hand over the suspects.

It is worth unpacking the verdict and what we know about Ayyash and his role in other assassinations in Lebanon before thinking through what the judgment could mean in the long term.

Born in 1963 in Nabatiyeh, Ayyash was designated as the apex of the assassination network, accusations that were borne out by the judgment (which is subject to appeal). In addition to coordinating the surveillance of Hariri in the run-up to the attack and the purchase of the Mitsubishi van that was laden with explosives, and helping plan the false claim of responsibility, Ayyash took part in the attack on the day itself, leading the network that tracked Hariri in his final moments.

The tribunal was established with the aim of ending impunity in Lebanon, but the low probability that anybody will face justice for the Beirut explosion and its apocalyptic criminal negligence shows that this remains a far away dream

Badreddine was also deeply enmeshed in the planning for the assassination, according to the prosecution. Based on reams of telecommunications evidence and call log data, Badreddine was accused of orchestrating Hariri's surveillance and planning the purchase of the van with Ayyash, as well as the overall monitoring of the assassination.

The calls between Badreddine, Ayyash and other members of the hit squad show a meticulously planned assassination campaign that began as early as November 2004 with surveillance of Hariri's movements and meetings, and reveal how deeply enmeshed Badreddine was with Ayyash's operation.

The court did not make any major findings on Badreddine's role because his death in 2016 in Syria meant he had to be dropped from the indictment. Badreddine was the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, the notorious Hezbollah military chief who led the party's war effort in 2006, and whose assassination in Damascus in 2008 was blamed on the CIA and Mossad, though that has never been acknowledged.

Badreddine had previously been convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the bombings of American and French diplomatic missions in Kuwait in the 1980s, before escaping during Saddam Hussein's invasion.

Badreddine succeeded Mughniyeh as Hezbollah's military chief, and led the party's campaign in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad's regime. He was killed in mysterious circumstances in May 2016 - Hezbollah said he died in an explosion near Damascus airport, and later improbably blamed Syrian rebel groups for his death. Israeli officials have since claimed that Badreddine may have been killed by his own men.

While the STL's trial chamber said it found no evidence that Hezbollah's leadership ordered the assassination, Badreddine was a member of the top echelons of the party's military command, which he would take over after his brother-in-law's death. It does not get much higher than this. Moreover, his deep involvement with Ayyash shows his intimate role in Hariri's killing.

Read more: Lebanon judge issues 5 new arrest warrants over Beirut blast

Perhaps one can make the extremely flimsy case that this was a rogue operation - that despite the sophisticated surveillance network, the enormous amounts of explosives that were procured for the purpose of killing Lebanon's most senior statesman at a time of major tension with Syria's Assad, and the great effort that went into planning the attack with the involvement of one of Hezbollah's top military commanders, that it was a one-off killing made by low-level operative who, at any rate, you couldn't prove conclusively that he was a member of Hezbollah.

But this argument becomes much harder to sustain when you realize that Ayyash is accused of planning, along with Badreddine, at least three other political assassinations in Lebanon that are proceeding to trial at the STL, and may have been involved in more. All of a sudden, the murders look like a concerted campaign orchestrated by a Hezbollah operative and one of the party's military chiefs to kill its opponents in Lebanon.

The STL has indicted Ayyash in three other assassination attempts in Lebanon. The tribunal's mandate allows it to investigate political killings that took place between October 2004 and December 2005 if it can prove that they are connected to the Hariri killing. The prosecution succeeded in linking these "connected cases," and the indictments were made public in September last year after they were confirmed by the court's pre-trial judge.

These indictments claim that Ayyash, along with Badreddine, orchestrated assassination attempts against Lebanese MP Marwan Hamadeh and former minister Elias al-Murr, as well as the killing of former Lebanese Communist Party leader Georges Hawi. The indictment goes into great detail in outlining when and how Badreddine and Ayyash communicated in the course of surveilling the victims and planning the attack.

And Ayyash may have been involved in other attacks as well. A recent Washington Post report alleges, based on intelligence assessments, that Ayyash was the head of a hit squad called Unit 121 that carried out at least four other assassinations. These included the killing of Wissam Eid, a security officer who uncovered the telecoms evidence that the court relied on in its investigations and his boss, former Internal Security Forces chief Wissam al-Hasan, as well as army general Francois al-Hajj, and former economy minister and diplomat Mohammad Chatah.

Truth is a prerequisite to reconciliation in societies that have long been in strife, and some measure of closure for the victims and their families is an honourable goal

The STL does not have jurisdiction over the assassinations mentioned in the Post's report. But the connected cases are proceeding towards trial, which will also take place in absentia. It will take years to reach a verdict, but if Ayyash is convicted in those cases too, it will prove beyond reasonable the following conclusion: Mustafa Badreddine, one of Hezbollah's most senior military commanders, collaborated with Salim Ayyash to orchestrate a series of assassinations of political figures in Lebanon. It was a campaign of systematic violence that involved one of the party's most senior figures.

But will it matter? Lebanon is reeling from a cascading series of catastrophes - an explosion in August that leveled much of Beirut, hyperinflation and a collapsing economy, a surge in coronavirus cases, and broad popular upheaval.

Hezbollah is still the most dominant and powerful actor in the country, and the likelihood of any members involved in assassinations and acts of violence against fellow Lebanese is remote. The court has not ascribed a motive to the killings, and has not made a judgment on the involvement of Syrian officials in the Hariri assassination, despite the enormous tensions between the Lebanese premier and Syria's Assad in the months leading up to the killing and Damascus's extensive military and security apparatus that was in place during its occupation of Lebanon, which ended after Hariri's death.

The tribunal was established with the aim of ending impunity in Lebanon, but the low probability that anybody will face justice for the Beirut explosion and its apocalyptic criminal negligence shows that this remains a far away dream.

But perhaps there is wisdom in the adage that the truth will set you free. Truth is a prerequisite to reconciliation in societies that have long been in strife, and some measure of closure for the victims and their families is an honourable goal.

Perhaps there is value, rebellion, and revolution in the very act of knowing, of holding on to incontrovertible truth, in an age where the very existence of truth itself is up for debate.

Kareem Shaheen is a journalist, columnist and editor based in Montreal. He's a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian and was previously based in Abu Dhabi, Beirut and Istanbul. He was nominated for a Frontline Club award and holds a master's in war studies from King's College London.

Follow him on Twitter: @kshaheen

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.