Why Hizballah Accused Are Untroubled by Indictment for Hariri Murder

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Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Hizballah leader Nasrallah addresses supporters through a giant TV screen in Beirut on Aug. 17, 2011

A man accused by an international tribunal of killing an iconic Lebanese statesman, in the process provoking six years of political turmoil that still threatens to undermine the country's tenuous stability, might deem it a good idea to disappear for a while. But for the four members of the militant Shi'ite Hizballah movement indicted in late June for their alleged roles in the 2005 car-bomb assassination of Rafik Hariri, the accusations are of little concern. And the fact that the indictment relies largely on circumstantial evidence created by cell-phone traces will give Hizballah confidence that it can beat the rap in the court of public opinion.

"I don't care about the indictments. Let them come to arrest me," one of the four told TIME in an exclusive interview, which he gave on condition of anonymity despite having been publicly named among the four suspects. "If I was guilty, Hizballah would have turned me over from the first day to the so-called international justice. I said it once and will repeat it for the last time: I am innocent of all charges against me."

His interview marked the first public comments made by any of the four men, two of whom are senior Hizballah commanders, since their names were leaked to the media in late June after the Netherlands-based U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon handed a sealed indictment to the Lebanese authorities. On Aug. 17, the tribunal released a redacted version of the indictment detailing the evidence it has uncovered to be used by the prosecution in a future trial.

The four indicted individuals are:

  • Mustafa Badreddine, a veteran Hizballah operative who, according to the indictment, sometimes operated under the pseudonym Sami Issa and "served as the overall controller of the operation";
  • Salim Ayyash, allegedly Badreddine's deputy, "who coordinated the assassination team, which was responsible for the physical perpetration of the attack";
  • Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, who are alleged to have prepared a scheme to divert blame for the Hariri assassination onto Sunni Islamist militants.

    "As participants in the conspiracy, all four accused played important roles in the attack on 14 February 2005 and therefore all four bear criminal responsibility for the results of the attack," the indictment says.

    The contents of the indictment have been long awaited in Lebanon with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. The allegation that members of Hizballah, the leading force in the current government, had played a role in killing Sunni leader Hariri has further aggravated an already dangerous sectarian political showdown in Lebanon.

    Hizballah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the indictments as groundless and accused Israel and the U.S. of manipulating the tribunal to pave the way for "sectarian strife and civil war."

    But Saad Hariri, son of the murder victim and a former Prime Minister himself, snapped back, accusing Nasrallah of stirring sectarian strife and calling on Hizballah to turn the accused over to the authorities.

    The evidence disclosed by the indictment is based almost entirely on a painstaking analysis of cell-phone usage in the months leading to Hariri's assassination. From the millions of cell-phone calls made in Lebanon each day, investigators were able to tease out five covert and open networks of cell phones allegedly used by various conspirators to coordinate the operation. The core team used a "red network" of cell phones activated a month before the assassination and used only to communicate with one another. The last time any of the "red" phones was used was just two minutes before the bomb blast that killed Hariri. The other phone networks were color-coded by the tribunal as green, blue, yellow and purple. From the analysis, the investigators were able to pinpoint the past locations of various conspirators and assessed that the surveillance of Hariri's movements began on Nov. 11, 2004, three months before the assassination.

    Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal prosecutor, admitted in the indictment that the evidence is circumstantial but added that such evidence is "often more reliable than direct evidence, which can suffer from firsthand memory loss or eyewitness distortion".

    The probe into the cell-phone networks was first revealed in October 2005 in the initial report of a U.N. commission investigating the assassination. The cell-phone evidence does beg a question, however. The indictment acknowledges that the conspirators were aware that the locations of mobile phones can be traced — that's why, it argues, they sought to disguise their tracks by activating the red network in a stronghold of Sunni Islamists in north Lebanon where few Shi'ites are found. But if they were that diabolically clever, it's puzzling that the conspirators would use their carefully camouflaged red-network phones while also carrying not only other operational color-coded phones but even their personal cell phones, which can still be traced even when not being used. Hizballah's highly secretive and technologically proficient personnel would have known that the only way to avoid a trace is to remove the battery and sim card from the phone. Yet, according to the indictment, it was the proximity of the four men's personal phones to the color-coded secret phones that helped identify them.

    Another surprise is the apparent lack of supporting evidence in the indictment. Although the tribunal's pretrial judge assessed that the accumulated evidence was sufficient to indict the four accused, it was widely assumed that after six years of investigations the tribunal would have amassed evidence beyond just the telecommunications records.

    The prosecution's reliance on the cell-phone data suggests that Nasrallah will soon make another of his periodic televised addresses to sow doubt about the tribunal's credibility. Hizballah accuses Israel of killing Hariri, arguing that only the Jewish state stood to benefit from the assassination. A year ago, Nasrallah broadcast what he said was footage from Israeli reconnaissance drones intercepted by Hizballah technicians showing the routes taken by Hariri's motorcades in and around Beirut. He said this demonstrated that Israel had been monitoring Hariri's movements.

    Nasrallah's effort to demolish the tribunal's case in the public mind will have been assisted by the arrest in June last year of a senior employee of Alfa, one of two state-run mobile-phone operators, on charges of collaborating with Israel. Charbel Qazzi, a senior technician, admitted under interrogation that he had been spying for Israel for 14 years. His position within Alfa reportedly enabled the Israelis to track and monitor individuals and tamper with telecommunications data.

    Meanwhile, the four accused Hizballah men are rumored to be living openly and without fear of arrest in areas under the Shi'ite party's control. It is highly unlikely that Hizballah would hand over any of them to a tribunal it says was established as a means of attacking the organization.

    The tribunal's methodical process, however, grinds on. Judge Antonio Cassese, the tribunal's president, on Aug. 18 instructed that "a form of advertisement" was necessary to publicize the indictment and the names and pictures of the four accused to help lead to their capture. If the four men continue to evade arrest, the tribunal will then decide when to proceed with trials in absentia.

    Judging from the comments and relaxed attitude of the accused Hizballah member interviewed by TIME, it's a safe bet that the dock will be empty when the trials finally begin.

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