From left, judges Walid Akoum, Janet Nosworthy, David Re, Micheline Braidy and Nicola Lettier preside over the first hearing in the trial of four people accused of murdering former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague on January 16, 2014. Photo: AFP/Toussaint Kluiters

A UN-backed tribunal will hand down its verdict Tuesday on the 2005 murder of former premier Rafic Hariri, two weeks after the Lebanese capital was rocked by a massive explosion and amid fears of new civil unrest.

Four members of the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah are on trial in absentia. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah last week warned that the powerful movement would ignore the verdict, saying “we do not feel concerned by the STL’s decisions.”

The slain former prime minister’s son Saad Hariri, who until last October led a unity cabinet including Hezbollah, was expected in The Hague for the verdict, scheduled for 11.00am (0900 GMT).

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s long-awaited judgment comes days after a cataclysmic blast at Beirut port left at least 178 people dead. The explosion has deepened public distrust toward the government, unleashing anger which has not spared Hariri’s Future Movement or Hezbollah.

Initially scheduled for August 7, the Dutch-based international court postponed its verdict 15 years after Hariri’s assassination “out of respect for the countless victims.”

The judgment harks back to an event that changed the face of the Middle East, when a huge suicide bombing on February 14, 2005, killed the Western-aligned Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people in Beirut.

The Hariri assassination triggered a wave of demonstrations that pushed Syrian forces out of Lebanon after 30 years.

No defendents

The court is billed as the world’s first international tribunal set up to probe terrorist crimes, and it has cost at least US$600 million since it opened its doors in 2009 following a UN Security Council resolution.

The tribunal faces doubts over its credibility with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand over the defendants, and the case relying almost entirely on mobile phone records.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the judgment “will be delivered from the courtroom with partial virtual participation,” the court said.

The four defendants went on trial in 2014 on charges including the “intentional homicide” of Hariri and 21 others, attempted homicide of 226 people wounded in the bombing and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Salim Ayyash, 56, is accused of leading the team that carried out the bombing, which involved a truck packed full of explosives that detonated near Hariri’s motorcade.

Assad Sabra, 43, and Hussein Oneissi, 46, allegedly sent a fake video to the Al-Jazeera news channel claiming responsibility on behalf of a made-up group. Hassan Habib Merhi, 54, is accused of general involvement in the plot.

The alleged mastermind of the bombing, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, was indicted by the court but reportedly killed in the Damascus area in May 2016.

The surviving suspects face life imprisonment if convicted, although sentencing will be carried out at a later date. If the four are convicted and not present, the court will issue arrest warrants, a court spokesman said.

Both the prosecution and defense can appeal the judgment and sentence, while if a defendant is eventually arrested he can request a retrial.

Threat to Syria

Prosecutors said during the trial that Hariri was assassinated because he was perceived to be a “severe threat” to Syrian control of the country.

Hariri was Lebanon’s Sunni premier until his resignation in 2004 over Syria’s role as power-broker in the country.

The case was “circumstantial” but “compelling,” prosecutors said, resting on mobile phone records allegedly showing the suspects conducting intense surveillance of Hariri from just after his resignation until minutes before the blast.

Observers have voiced fears that the verdict, whichever way it goes, could spark violence on the streets in Lebanon when it is announced.

Since its inception “the court has been widely contested,” said Karim Bitar, professor of international relations in Paris and Beirut.

“Some have questioned its legitimacy, some have questioned whether this justice would not be selective,” he said.

Tuesday’s verdict comes as thousands of Beirut’s residents have expressed anger at the authorities after the blast, which authorities say was triggered by a warehouse fire that set off large amounts of stored ammonium nitrate.

The cause of the initial fire remains under investigation.