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Lebanon tribunal gives Hezbollah member five life sentences for 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri

Presiding Judge David Re, right, and Judge Janet Nosworthy before a session of the U.N.-backed Lebanon tribunal in Leidschendam, Netherlands, on Dec. 11. (Peter Dejong/Pool/AP)

BEIRUT — A special tribunal set up to prosecute those responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri sentenced a Hezbollah member to five life sentences Friday, nearly four months after it found him guilty.

Salim Jamil Ayyash was one of four men charged with belonging to a cell that carried out the attack, which killed the former prime minister and business tycoon as well as 21 others. In August, the United Nations-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon concluded its 11-year investigation, finding Ayyash guilty on all charges of involvement.

The bomb that targeted Hariri’s motorcade on Valentine’s Day in 2005 left behind unrest in the region. The Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, which today controls the Lebanese government, was the main suspect in the attack. Immediately following the assassination, suspicions also landed on neighboring Syria, a Hezbollah ally.

Shortly after the assassination and under international pressure, Syria’s military, which occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades, withdrew from the country. Hariri, who had high connections and support in France and Saudi Arabia, was an outspoken critic of Syria’s influence and had been openly trying to end its dominion.

Ayyash was tried in absentia, as were three alleged accomplices who were acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence connecting them to the assassination. None of them have been located nor any signs of life established.

On Friday, Ayyash received a life sentence for each of five charges: conspiring to commit an act of terrorism; criminal association; committing acts of terrorism; intentional homicide with premeditation; and attempted intentional homicide with premeditation.

Although the tribunal had failed in August to determine who had ordered Hariri’s death, Judge Janet Nosworthy said Friday that Ayyash “had a central role in the attack.”

A new international arrest warrant was issued for Ayyash, which will be transmitted to Lebanon and the Netherlands, where the special tribunal is based. The prosecutor was authorized to ask Interpol to issue and circulate writ notices, requesting that law enforcement agencies locate Ayyash and provisionally arrest him.

“Mr. Ayyash is a fugitive from justice,” said Australian presiding Judge David Re. “The attack was intended to spread terror in Lebanon, and indeed did,” he said, reading out the court’s decision. “The trial chamber is satisfied it should impose the maximum sentence for each of the five crimes of a life sentence to be served concurrently.”

No Syrians were charged, even though Syrian officials came under suspicion following the assassination.

Current and former security officials previously told The Washington Post that Ayyash was a member of a dedicated hit squad that carried out at least four other assassinations under orders from the militant group Hezbollah, citing previously undisclosed intelligence about the case.

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