U.N. Trial Clears Hezbollah, Finds One Guilty of Lebanon Leader's Death Amid Crisis

An international court has cleared Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, three of its suspected members as well as its ally, the Syrian government, of wrongdoing in the 2005 assassination of a former prime minister, citing lack of evidence. A fourth Hezbollah member was found guilty and critics of the group argued this verdict actually showed its hand in the event.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established in the Netherlands as part of an agreement between the Lebanese government and the United Nations, issued the highly-anticipated ruling Tuesday as Lebanon braced for further unrest owing to a worsening economic crisis severely compounded by a massive blast that rocked the capital two weeks ago. The explosion delayed the tribunal's decision, originally scheduled for August 7, but now already drawing reactions within the country.

"Achieving justice in the assassination of the martyr Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his companions answers everyone's desire to uncover the circumstances of this heinous crime that threatens stability and civil peace in Lebanon," a statement issued Tuesday by Lebanese President Michel Aoun's office read.

The statement called for the ruling to be a sign "for unity and solidarity, and to join efforts in order to protect the country from any attempt to stir up sedition."

Hariri's 2005 death also came at the hands of an explosion, albeit a much smaller that one that still managed to kill some 21 other people and ravage Beirut's seaside highway. His shocking death set off a series of opposing mass demonstrations that eventually led to the ousting of a Syria-backed government in place since the end of the country's civil war in 1990 and the formation of two rival political blocs still in place today.

Speculation as to who was behind the act has ranged from Hezbollah to Syria to Israel and others but the U.N.-backed court eventually indicted five Hezbollah suspects, one of whom—senior commander Mustafa Badreddine—was killed in Damascus in 2016 also under murky circumstances.

Today, Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim, was found guilty, while Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, now called Hassan Issa, and Hassan Habib Merhi were cleared without sufficient evidence. Importantly, however, both Hezbollah and Syria were cleared of direct involvement.

lebanon, rafik, hariri, tomb, beirut
Lebanese women pray over the tomb of slain Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, in the downtown area of the capital Beirut, on August 18. A U.N.-backed tribunal found a member of the Hezbollah Shiite Muslim movement guilty over the 2005 murder of the former Lebanese leader but cleared three other suspects after a years-long trial. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

"There is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri's murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it," the court's legal summary found. "There is no evidence that either Mr. Ayyash or Mr. Badreddine were directed by the Hezbollah leadership to arrange logistical support for Mr. Hariri's assassination."

At the same time, however, it noted that "Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr. Hariri, and some of his political allies." Hariri and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had relatively good ties in the period preceding the former's death, but Hariri was an opponent of Syria's influence over the Lebanese government and, according to the court's summary, "believed that Hezbollah's militia should be disarmed, at the very least, when peace with Israel was achieved."

Like Aoun, Berri emphasized the concept of "one unified homeland" in Lebanon in the wake of the decision. Fellow Shiite Muslim leader Nasrallah did not immediately comment, but he has vehemently denied any connection to the bombing and has warned Hezbollah would resist efforts to prosecute those affiliated the movement.

Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain premier and former prime minister himself until his resignation late last year, said Tuesday that "the one who must sacrifice today is Hezbollah as it became clear today that the network of killers emerged from its ranks." He accepted the verdict but called for justice to be served.

Like his father, the younger Hariri represents the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Movement, the largest party of the March 14 coalition, while current Prime Minister Hassan Diab—who announced his resignation last week—is an independent. Aoun's majority-Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri's Shiite Muslim Amal Movement represent the largest two powers of the March 8 bloc, as does Hezbollah, its third-largest component.

Saudi Arabia, which is close to the Hariri family, also highlighted the involvement of a Hezbollah member as the main takeaway from the ruling. The Saudi Foreign Ministry said the trial's result "confirmed the necessity to protect Lebanon, the region and the world from the terrorist acts of this party that is considered a tool of the Iranian regime, and proves Hezbollah's involvement in terrorist acts in many countries."

Hezbollah's top foe, Israel, with which Lebanon is technically at war, also weighed in. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the court's decision "an unequivocal one that clarifies the involvement of the Hezbollah terrorist organization and its members in the assassination and the confusion of the investigations. Hezbollah captured the future of the Lebanese in the service of foreign interests."

The United States also spoke out against Hezbollah and its foreign ally, Iran, in a statement released later Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said that "Ayyash's conviction helps confirm what the world is increasingly recognizing—that Hizballah and its members are not defenders of Lebanon as they claim to be but constitute a terrorist organization dedicated to advancing Iran's malign sectarian agenda."

"As the Lebanese people suffer through a crushing economic crisis, Hizballah's exploitation of Lebanon's financial system, its degradation of Lebanese institutions, and its provocative and dangerous actions threaten the Lebanese people and jeopardize Lebanon's financial well-being and potential recovery," he added.