The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) sentenced in absentia, Thursday, June 16, to life imprisonment two members of Hezbollah for an attack committed in 2005 which caused the death of 22 people including the former Prime Minister Lebanese Rafik Hariri.
“The Appeals Chamber unanimously decides to sentence Mr. (Habib) Merhi and Mr. (Hussein) Oneissi to life imprisonment, the heaviest sentence provided by the statute and rules,” the court said. STL President Ivana Hrdlickova.
The court found them guilty on appeal on March 10, reversing their acquittal. They were notably convicted on appeal of conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism and complicity in intentional homicide.
“Particularly heinous” and “extremely serious” crimes
The two men were “fully aware that the planned attack in the heart of Beirut would kill Rafik Hariri” and others, judge Ivana Hrdlickova said. They acted with premeditation and were guilty of “extremely serious” and “particularly heinous” crimes that “plunged the Lebanese people into a state of terror”, she added.
It is unlikely that the two men will be truly imprisoned, because the Shiite Hezbollah movement has refused to hand over any suspects and to recognize the court which tried all the suspects in absentia, including Salim Ayyash, already sentenced to life in 2020.
Rafic Hariri, who was Lebanon’s prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was killed in February 2005 when a suicide bomber blew up a van loaded with explosives as his armored convoy passed through Beirut, killing 21 other people and injuring 226 people.
The attack sparked protests that drove Syria out of Lebanon after a 29-year military deployment. After the departure of the Syrian army, the current hostile to Damascus, led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafic Hariri, had won the legislative elections of 2005 and 2009.
The UN court doomed to disappear
It could well be the end of the curtain for the TSL, which sits near The Hague, in the Netherlands. Threatened with disappearance for lack of funding, the court should close its doors at the end of this trial. Since its opening in 2009, after a resolution of the UN Security Council, the cost of the STL, responsible for trying those accused of the attack, is estimated between 600 million and one billion dollars.
At the end of the trial at first instance, the court sentenced Salim Ayyash in 2020 but considered that there was not enough evidence to convict the other defendants, Assad Sabra, Hussein Oneissi and Hassan Habib Merhi. The prosecution had appealed the acquittals of the last two.
The file shows a significant number of exchanges with various mobile phones used by the convicts in the hours following the assassination of Mr. Hariri. The three convicts are still at large, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, having refused to hand them over to the court. Another trial against Salim Ayyash for a series of attacks on several politicians has been canceled due to lack of funds.