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UN-backed tribunal rejects acquittal appeal by Rafiq Hariri assassination suspect

Lebanon ex-prime ministee Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005 [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 March, 2018

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The Special Tribunal for Lebanon says the trial of an alleged Hizballah member suspected of involvement can continue in absentia.

Judges at a UN-backed tribunal on Wednesday threw out a bid to acquit an alleged Hizballah member of any role in the 2005 assassination of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The chamber at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon "finds that the prosecution has provided a sufficiency of evidence upon which it could convict" Hussein Oneissi, presiding judge David Re said.

"Application for his acquittal is therefore dismissed," Re added.

The judge stressed however the court "could still acquit Mr Oneissi at the end of the trial" if the prosecution has not proved the charges "beyond reasonable doubt".

The prosecution last month concluded its case against Oneissi, and three other suspected Hizballah members, all being tried in absentia in the court in the Netherlands.

Before opening the defence case, lawyers for Oneissi, 44, argued the five charges should be dropped as the prosecution had failed to provide sufficient evidence.

The judges agreed much of the evidence against Oneissi, largely based on mobile phone records and SIM cards used in the attack, was circumstantial.

But "the number of coincidental actions is such that the trial chamber has sufficient evidence from which it could convict Mr Oneissi of his involvement in the attack on Mr Hariri," judge Janet Nosworthy said.

"There is sufficient evidence from which the trial chamber could conclude that Mr Oneissi... must have been aware in advance of the nature of the plot to assassinate Mr Hariri, namely by using an explosive device in a public place," added Re.

Hariri, who was Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was killed in February 2005, when a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with tonnes of explosives next to his armoured convoy on the Beirut seafront.

Another 21 people were killed and 226 injured in the assassination, with fingers pointing at Syria which had long been a power-broker in the country.

"The assassination of Mr. Hariri was obviously a carefully planned and rehearsed event requiring... military precision," said Re.

'Decoy'

Oneissi is notably accused of having recruited Lebanese Islamist Ahmed Abu Adass and helping him to make a videotape falsely claiming the assassination.

Within minutes of the attack, the claim was made in several phone calls to Reuters news agency. Shortly afterwards a tape of Abu Adass's "confession" was left in a tree outside the Beirut offices of broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

The court agreed that since the trial opened in January 2014 no evidence had been found that Abu Adass was the suicide bomber. His DNA was not found at the scene.

Rather Abu Adass had been used as a decoy "to divert attention from the attackers" to a "fictional fundamentalist group", Nosworthy said.

Co-defendant Salim Ayyash is accused of masterminding the plot, with Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Habib Merhi as accomplices.

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