The blast ripped balconies across the Mediterranean, shattered block windows and reverberated in Beirut, leaving a city shattered by the immeasurable loss.
That happened 15 years, five months and three weeks ago, when Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was killed along with 21 others by a suicide bomber in a minibus packed with explosives that ravaged the Lebanese capital and shook the Middle East.
Now that 6.8 million people in Lebanon are battling the trauma of Tuesday’s massive bombings that killed more than 150 people and leveled large sections of Beirut, they are also backing their sentences in Mr Hariri̵
But with few people in Lebanon trusting their government to hold officials responsible for this week’s bombings, almost no one expects the full truth about Mr Hariri’s massacre and his entourage on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
As a result of the recent explosions, political factions are vying to call for an international investigation into Mr Hariri’s assassination.
The trial against Hariri cost nearly $ 700 million, took many years and became a virtual industry in itself, with a staff of nearly 400 and 11 full-time judges – all for a trial that was not even attended by the four defendants. They are all low-level operators of Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite political organization. Their whereabouts are unknown and they were tried in absentia.
More importantly, prosecutors have not addressed the main issue of who – or which government, if any – ordered the attack and why.
The case, like the bombings that devastated Beirut this week, is a prime example of the debilitating lack of accountability, government dysfunction and volatile political divisions that have long plagued Lebanon.
Even before Tuesday’s explosions, the country was struggling with huge debts, a rapid economic crisis, corruption, a coronavirus pandemic and the burden of taking on more than a million military refugees from Syria.
Then came the huge shock wave that swept across the city. Officials attribute its appalling power to a huge stockpile of highly explosive materials that the government has neglected for years, allowing it to sit in a dense urban area despite the obvious risks.
President Michel Aoun said authorities would investigate “whether the explosion was the result of negligence or an accident” and “the possibility of outside interference”, including a bomb or other deliberate act.
But, just like Hariri’s assassination, this week’s tragedy inflamed deep political differences in Lebanon. On Friday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah angrily denied speculation that the blasts may have been caused by a weapons cache belonging to the group.
“Several factions that oppose Hezbollah have started spreading lies that the hangar is a depot for weapons, missiles or ammunition,” Mr Nasrallah said, adding that the intention was to “terrorize the Lebanese people and portray Hezbollah as responsible for the calamity that befell them. “
The same kind of division hung over the Hariri case from the beginning. Hezbollah has rejected the court as an instrument of its enemies, Israel and the United States. Its leader, Mr Nasrallah, warned against cooperating with the tribunal and threatened to follow all the followers who did.
The court planned to announce verdicts on Friday, but postponed them until August 18 due to the explosions. But whatever the outcome, it will fail to solve one of the most important cases in the nation’s recent history.
During his assassination, Mr Hariri, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister with high-ranking friends in France and Saudi Arabia, clashed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose military side has occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades.
Mr Hariri was trying to end his rule in Syria. He also disliked Hezbollah’s close ties with Syria and Iran.
Parliamentary elections are taking place and Mr Hariri, the country’s dominant Muslim politician, is likely to return as prime minister.
Suspicions fell in Syria immediately after the assassination. An early United Nations investigation pointed to the involvement of senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese aides.
Under enormous international pressure, Syria withdrew from Lebanon two months later. But the possible roles of Syria and Iran in the assassination were extremely difficult to prove and were not considered during the trial, which has been widely criticized.
“The most shocking thing in this case is how little has been invested in finding out who ordered and planned the assassination and who had an interest in killing Hariri,” said Guena Metro, a lawyer appointed by the court as a defense lawyer. “There’s a murder, but no one with a motive.”
Instead, the prosecution focused on the activities of the four low-level defendants: Salim Jamil Ayash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Onesi and Assad Hassan Sabra. All were linked by investigators to Hezbollah. The data records from their mobile phones put the defendants close to the attack. Their phones went silent immediately after.
A fifth suspect, the highest-ranking official, had dropped out of the indictment after being killed in Syria. The suspect, Mustafa Badredin, was the head of Hezbollah’s military wing and a close confidant of Mr Nasrallah.
Fear among Lebanese officials that the trial could not take place safely in Beirut led to the creation of the tribunal known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up in 2009 by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.
With a mandate to investigate terrorist offenses based on Lebanese law, the court has appointed a mix of Lebanese and international staff. As it is not a UN body, half of its budget is paid by Lebanon, and half by predominantly Western governments, including France and the United States, which supported the creation of the tribunal.
The difficulties were obvious from the beginning. Researchers sent by the United Nations had to work under strict security in a country where the attacks were routine. Witnesses were afraid to testify; some found or missing. Detlev Melis, a German prosecutor sent by the United Nations shortly after the assassination, said his job had been thwarted by Syrian authorities, who denied any involvement.
Mr Melis identified nearly 20 suspects, including four senior Lebanese security officials and senior Syrian officials. However, Mr Mehlis then left the investigation, warning that UN officials could no longer guarantee his safety. Some suspect that his investigation, instead of resolving the case, risks fomenting conflict between Shiite and Sunni factions in Lebanon.
Mr Mehlis’ heirs have increasingly focused on crime scene crime.
Since the tribunal opened 11 years ago, lawyers close to the prosecution have said that evidence of the role of senior Lebanese or Syrian officials, although widely reported, has not risen to the level required in the trial. The pre-trial judge shocked many by ordering the release of four senior Lebanese security officials involved in Mr Mehlis, citing a lack of evidence.
“I believe there was a desire not to get to the bottom of the assassination for political reasons,” said Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, who wrote about the assassination. “Important information was available for the first few years.”
Norman Farrell, the current Canadian prosecutor, said he hoped to bring some form of justice, perhaps “incomplete justice,” even without the defendants present.
Asked why the prosecution had not determined who was behind the murder, Vayed Ramadan, a spokesman for the tribunal, said in an email: “The judiciary can only try people on the basis of evidence that can stand trial.”
The process focused exclusively on technical evidence. Prosecutors drew up detailed maps of when and where they were called from defendants’ cell phones, showing systematic tracking of Mr. Hariri’s movements. The prosecutor’s office even carried out a reconstruction of the explosion at a military base in southern France.
Mr Mettraux, who now teaches law at the Irish Center for Human Rights in Galway, said the main purpose of the Hariri prosecution was unrealistic.
“We defense attorneys have made it look like a real trial,” he said. “We had to argue, but we had no real evidence that the accused were even alive.”
Early supporters of the tribunal said it aimed to enable the judiciary and usher in a new era of accountability in a country and region with a history of settling political disputes through assassination. But opinions quickly split, as Mr Hariri’s opponents denied it as an instrument of attack on Syria and Iran.
Dr Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut who studied Lebanon’s views on the tribunal, said the polarization around the process partly reflected Lebanon’s failure to cope with the trauma of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Massacres and disappearances have never been fully studied; military leaders have never been persecuted. This has led many Lebanese to question the international impetus for justice for Mr Hariri, a wealthy and privileged pro-Western politician, instead of resolving the crimes committed during the war.
The problem was, “Why Hariri and no one before Hariri?” “- he said.
Holding the trial far away in the Netherlands, with many protected witnesses testifying behind closed doors, could further tarnish his reputation among Lebanese.
For some critics of the expanding field of international justice, the Lebanese tribunal has cast new doubts on the effectiveness of setting up expensive special institutions to deal with distant and complex crimes.
In this case, an unconvincing result was achieved and the defendants were absent.
“It was a disproportionate use of resources, given the small group of people killed compared to atrocities elsewhere in the world,” said William Shabas, a law professor at Middlesex University in London. “Ultimately, this will be symbolic, because no one who is not found guilty can be punished. And if they are found, they will have to be tried again. “