TUE 16 - 7 - 2019
Date: Sep 12, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Hezbollah connection bolstered assassination plot: STL prosecution
Victoria Yan| The Daily Star
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands: The prosecution at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, in the opening to its closing arguments Monday, asserted that the “skillful” planning behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could have been accomplished only with the suspects’ strong connection to Hezbollah.

Indicted individuals Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Merhi have all been affiliated with Hezbollah and are accused of having played various roles in the Feb.14, 2005, Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others.

Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander, had also previously been indicted for his role in the plot, but upon the confirmation of his death after a shelling near the Damascus airport in May 2016, the charges were officially dropped. Regardless, the prosecution has named him the “mastermind” behind the plot.

“Badreddine and the four accused shared a bond in their common support for and links to Hezbollah. Badreddine was a Hezbollah military commander of the first order,” senior prosecution counsel Nigel Povoas said during Monday’s hearing.

“It is this extensive experience as a military operative at the highest levels in Hezbollah that is reflected in the sophistication and the subterfuge that characterizes the plot carried out, and the advanced organization, the planning and the access to resources that were necessary to execute such a complex crime.”

It was not the first time the prosecution counsel’s made such a connection between the accused and Hezbollah. Nonetheless, the statement served as a strong reminder of a popular opinion: Many in Lebanon and the international community alike share the idea that the upper echelons of Hezbollah’s hierarchy were likely to have directed the accused in their operations.

Povoas bolstered the prosecution’s case by providing the geopolitical context at the time of the attack. He spoke about the souring relations between Syria and Lebanon when United Nations Resolution 1559 called upon the former to withdraw its troops from the latter.

Rafik Hariri, an influential businessman with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, was increasingly seen as a threat to Syria’s influence in the country, Povoas said, adding that this was the ultimate motivation driving the assassination plot.

“Hariri reluctantly supported [Emile] Lahoud, Assad’s [puppet] in Lebanon ... after Hariri confirmed ... he would seek reelection, leading the opposition of the [anti-Syrian coalition], Ayyash, to cancel his plans for hajj and immediately begin [to plan the operation],” Povoas said.

While the prosecution has reiterated multiple times that its case is against the four individuals, and not Hezbollah or “any other state” – most likely a reference to Syria – it has not shied away from making connections to the anti-Israel resistance group turned political party with an active military wing.

Monday’s hearing marks a significant advancement for the STL, which held its first hearing in January 2014. Both Povoas and lead Prosecutor Norman Farrell delivered the beginning of the closing arguments with dramatic rhetoric, calling the assassination a “heinous” crime that displayed “an utter disregard for human life.”

“The overwhelming weight of evidence leaves no [doubt] that [those indicted] are guilty. The nature of the crime ... the vast military-grade explosives [used to] send a message of terror, fear and panic, was profound, and will never be forgotten,” Farrell said in his opening.

Present during Monday morning’s session was current Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son.

Speaking with local and international media during the break after the morning session, he said, “There is no doubt that this day is difficult for me as the son of Rafik Hariri. Rafik Hariri, and the other martyrs of March 14, fell to protect Lebanon, not to destroy it. Therefore, from the start, we demanded justice because we believe that justice and the truth protect Lebanon.”

He also emphasized that he would not allow his personal stake in the case to mix with his politics in his capacity as a public servant.

Asked whether the STL’s verdict will affect his role as premier-designate, given that Hezbollah plays an active role in the government, Hariri responded, "If someone is in the position I’m in, they will put their emotions aside. We are living together and will cohabitate for the interest of the country."

Following his statement, the Prime Minister designate left the STL.

The prosecution is expected to continue its closing arguments Wednesday, after which the legal representative of victims and defense teams are slated to talk on behalf of their clients over a two-week period.

After the “conclusion of arguments, parties will have completed their cases, and I as presiding judge will call the hearings closed,” David Re, the president of the Trial Chamber, said Monday.

A final verdict is expected in 2019.

Covert phone usage implicates accused at STL

Victoria Yan| The Daily Star
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands: The prosecution pronounced Tuesday that Salim Ayyash, Hassan Merhi, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra were undeniably involved in the “skillful” 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The first session of the trial’s final hearings commenced Tuesday morning, assuming a dramatic tone differing from that of previous installments in the trial, which began Jan. 14, 2014.

The prosecution, led by Norman Farrell, began its closing statement by saying that the assassination, the result of a bombing that occurred on Feb. 14, 2005, in “the heart of the city” of Beirut, displayed an “utter disregard for human life.” In addition to killing former Prime Minister Hariri, the attack took the lives of 21 others.

Farrell went on to accuse the four of being guilty of conspiring to commit the crime, along with Mustafa Badreddine, the deceased former top Hezbollah commander.

While Badreddine was initially indicted for his role in the assassination, charges against him were dropped following the confirmation of his death in Syria in the summer of 2016. The prosecution has continued to present his involvement to the trial chamber to bolster the case against the remaining four actors.

Nigel Povoas, acting senior counsel, followed Farrell and provided the details of the prosecution’s case. Like Farrell, Povoas emphasized that the bombing was an atrocity against humanity, severely affecting the lives of bystanders as well as the functioning of the Lebanese government.

“The overwhelming weight of evidence leaves no [doubt] that [those indicted] are guilty,” Povoas said. “The nature of the crime ... the vast military-grade explosives [used to] send a message of terror, fear and panic, was profound, and will never be forgotten.”

The prosecution also pointed to the use of covert phone networks, and the deliberate attempt to throw off investigators by covering up the those operating each device, which it said implicated the accused in the assassination plot.

Prosecution counsel David Kinnecome highlighted the four covert networks, which were referred to by color – green, yellow, blue and red. A fifth group, delineated by the color purple, had previously been labeled as one such network. Nuances in its usage, however, have led to its being reclassified as a noncovert phone ‘group.’

The green network, also referred to by the prosecution as the “Hezbollah network,” was operated by top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine. Badreddine used the green network to check in with accused individuals Ayash and Merhi – each of whom was responsible for his own task within the assassination plot. Oneissi, the fourth suspect indicted, did not direct any phone network but was actively involved in the the network system.

The yellow and blue networks, according to the prosecution, were used to surveil the movements of the former prime minister from 2004 to 2005. Information on the routes Rafik Hariri’s convoys took to various places around the country ultimately enabled the team to closely follow him and detonate the bomb next to his convoy.

Finally, the red network – a classic use of so-called burner phones – was employed only on the day of the attack, Feb. 14, 2005. The phones in the red network, according to the prosecution, coordinated the bombing on the day of the attacks.

Unlike those using phones in the other networks, users of phones in the red network, wary of being found out by investigators, allegedly attempted to create a fake trail so it would seem that their phones had been operated in Tripoli on the day of the bombing, and therefore throw off investigators.

Summarizing testimonies from cellular experts aiding the team, Kinnecome noted that the prosecution was able to use cell-site analysis to corroborate the identities of the cellular users, among other technical strategies.

Using cell-site analysis, the location of each phone call could be estimated and therefore connected to the suspects’ movements and also used to identify locations, including their areas of residence.

“They cannot predict locations 100 percent,” Kinnecome said, “but it gives good indications of areas.”

According to Povoas, Badreddine had been the leader in charge of coordinating among Ayyash, Merhi, Oneissi and Sabra, and of assigning each his task in the crime.

Ayyash, the prosecution claimed, was the second in command. He was alleged to have been responsible for tracking the former prime minister’s movements for months and instructing each of the perpetrators on the day of the bombing.

Merhi, Sabra and Oneissi, Povoas continued, later took charge in manipulating an innocent individual, Ahmad Abu Adass, into confessing to the crime.

This so-called false-claim aspect, Povaos said Monday, was a “deceitful veneer designed to deter the most-skilled investigators, and the Lebanese people.” He said it was a “cynical attempt” to throw off the investigation that was ultimately thwarted.

The prosecution counsel said that all of the four indicted, including Badreddine, were openly connected through their support for Hezbollah. He added that if not for their connection to the group, they would not have been able to pull off such a sophisticated operation.

Hariri calls for justice for Rafik Hariri assassins ahead of final STL hearing

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Tuesday he was confident that his father’s assassins would be brought to justice, and that following the final hearings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, he would not allow his personal feelings to mix with his politics in his capacity as a public servant.

Hariri spoke with reporters after the opening session of the final hearings at the STL, held in the Netherlands, which is investigating the 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

During the opening hearing Monday morning, the prosecution, led by Norman Farrell, summarized its case against four Hezbollah-affiliated individuals for their roles in orchestrating the 2005 bombing.

"Those who committed this crime will sooner or later, Inshallah [God willing], pay the price," Hariri said.

Asked whether the STL’s verdict will affect Hariri's role as premier-designate, as Hezbollah plays an active role in the government, Hariri said he will not let personal matters interfere in his duties.

"If someone is in the position I’m in, they will put their emotions aside," Hariri said. "We are living together, and will cohabitate for the interest of the country."

Hariri thanked "everyone who has worked on the case," adding that many assassinations had occurred in Lebanon and that "the truth had never been revealed."

The premier-designate said a verdict will be issued within months of the end of the 10-day sessions.

Earlier in the day, Hariri had released a statement on social media, saying, "We are holding on to the truth, to know who is behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri and all the martyrs who fell defending Lebanon. With justice, the killer will be handed his punishment."

Hariri arrived in the Netherlands Monday in preparation for the prosecution’s closing arguments. He is accompanied by caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh and caretaker Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury.

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