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Hezbollah on trial for Hariri killing, but what was its motive?

Nicholas BlanfordThe Christian Science Monitor

Prosecutors today laid out what they say is a detailed, solid case against four members of Hezbollah charged with the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. But their investigation has glossed over a critical point: Hezbollah did not seem to have sufficient autonomy, or even motivation, to kill Rafik Hariri.

Prosecution at the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon today confirmed that their case rests primarily on a detailed analysis of telephones used by the accused while planning the assassination. The prosecutors says they are confident that the complex analysis of phone call data and geo-locations will carry sufficient weight with the tribunal to lead to a conviction of the four Hezbollah men.

But it leaves open glaring questions: Why would Hezbollah have wanted to kill Mr. Hariri, a Saudi-backed billionaire businessman and former premier? And even if it had reason, did the Iran- and Syria-supported party have the latitude in 2005 to do so unilaterally?

“No one can fail to have been affected directly or indirectly by the attack in downtown Beirut that on Feb. 14, 2005 killed Mr Rafik Hariri,” said Norman Farrell, the chief prosecutor, as proceedings began in the courthouse lying in a suburb of The Hague. The prosecution team said earlier in the week that it would need around a day and a half to present an outline of its case against the four Hezbollah men – Mustapha Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Sabra – all of whom are being tried in absentia.

The prosecution began with a detailed and harrowing account of Hariri’s movements leading up to the massive truck bomb explosion in central Beirut which left him and 21 other people dead.

The court was shown CCTV images of the Mitsubishi van carrying the bomb as it moved into position alongside the derelict seafront St. Georges Hotel in central Beirut moments before Hariri’s six-vehicle motorcade arrived. Video images were broadcast of the immediate aftermath of the bombing with vehicles ablaze and thick black smoke shrouding the scene, as well as burnt bodies in a car and Hariri’s blanket-wrapped corpse lying on the rubble-strewn road.

“Those who died were victims, those who were injured were victims, their families were victims, and the people of Lebanon as a whole were victims of this attack,” said Alexander Milne, the chief trial counsel on the prosecution bench.

Phone trail

The focus of the prosecution’s delivery was on the complex analysis of several networks of cellphones that led to the identification of the four Hezbollah men.

The communications analysis provided a breakthrough early on in the investigation and was credited largely to Wissam al-Eid, a Lebanese police captain and technical expert who first detected a pattern in cellphone usage and the geographical position of the callers, a process known as co-location. Mr. Eid was killed in a car bomb assassination in January 2008.

The cellphones were broken down into five color-coded networks – red, green, blue, yellow, and purple. The phones in each network were used for specific aspects of the assassination plot, the prosecution alleges. For example, the eight “red” phones were activated on Jan. 5, 2005, and were used by Mr. Ayyash and other as yet unidentified figures for surveillance of Hariri’s movements in the month before he died.

The “green” network consisted of three phones activated on Sept. 30, 2004, and last used about one hour before the bomb blast on Feb. 14. The prosecution alleges that Mr. Badreddine, a senior figure in Hezbollah’s security apparatus who is accused of being in charge of the plot, used his “green” phone to communicate with Mr. Ayyash, who is said to have coordinated the assassination team and been responsible for the bomb construction.

“The evidence, including a considerable amount of telecommunications data, leaves marks behind concerning the true identities of the perpetrators,” Mr. Farrell said.

Hariri and Nasrallah, confidantes?

What is left unsaid is Hezbollah’s motive in wanting Hariri dead, a question that the prosecution is not obligated to answer.

In the months before his death, even as his relations with the Syrian leadership were deteriorating, Hariri got together at least once a week with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, in a series of secret meetings that only became public after the assassination. Sipping coffee and snacking on fruit, the two men discussed a range of issues related to Lebanon, Syria and the broader Middle East, finding common ground on many issues, according to Hariri’s aides. Hariri, a businessman who preferred compromise over confrontation, even agreed with Nasrallah that he would not seek the dismantling of Hezbollah’s powerful military wing out of a concern that such a move could destabilize Lebanon.

In their last meeting, held just three days before Hariri’s death, Nasrallah told the former premier that he was sending an emissary on Feb. 14 to Damascus to attempt a rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. It was a favor to Hariri after he reached out the previous month to his close friend, then-French President Jacques Chirac, to persuade him to oppose a move by the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Hariri’s preference for cutting deals to resolve problems made him more of a potential asset than a threat to Hezbollah, which in 2005 was under mounting domestic and international pressure to disarm.

Caveats

Furthermore, Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria, was not strong enough in 2005 to unilaterally undertake an assassination that was likely to have strategic consequences for its backers, analysts say. And even if the four Hezbollah men are found guilty after what is likely to be many months of judicial proceedings, they are likely to still be free, and the identity of those that ordered Mr Hariri’s assassination will remain unknown, making a successful prosecution only a symbolic legal victory. The four men are being tried in absentia because Hezbollah has refused to hand them over and the Lebanese government lacks the strength to force them.

The prosecution is pressing its case against the four indicted individuals and not Hezbollah as an organization. The accused are described in the indictments as being “supporters” of Hezbollah because their membership in the organization cannot be proven. That legal distinction allows the prosecution to sidestep answering why Hezbollah as an organization might have wanted to kill Hariri. Still, the stipulation means little to Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon, who firmly believe that the organization is essentially on trial.

“With these [four] men, Hezbollah will be directly accused,” says Ahmad Hariri, nephew of Rafik and secretary-general of the Future Movement, a Sunni political party founded by the slain ex-premier. He added that Iran and Syria were to blame for the assassination because Tehran wanted to establish a “Persian crescent” across “Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.”

“There was a strong man in Lebanon [who could have halted the plan] and that was Rafik Hariri, and they wanted him killed and out of the political scene,” he says.