Beirut blast stalls Hariri assassination verdict

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Source: Helene C. Stikkel (via Wikimedia Commons)
Lebanon is left shaken after a massive explosion in Beirut’s port, echoing the bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri 15 years ago.

By Dewi Morris | Political Editor

Lebanon has been left shaken after a massive explosion in Beirut’s port, echoing the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri 15 years ago.

The explosion, which devastated Lebanon’s capital, took place only days before the planned verdict on former Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination by an UN-backed tribunal (the first in absentia trial since the Nuremberg trials following the end of the Second World War).

As Lebanon mourns at least 220 deaths (as of August 11) in the latest explosion, it was also awaiting the long-expected verdict for Hariri’s assassination. A Netherlands-based court was due to announce their verdict on Friday, August 7. The verdict will now be delivered two weeks later, on August 18, out of respect for the victims of Beirut’s latest blast.

What happened to Prime Minister Hariri?

Former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s murder took place on Valentine’s Day 2005, a suicide bomb attack that shook the Middle East, killing Hariri and 21 others on Beirut’s seafront.

The tribunal regarding Hariri’s death will announce judgments on four members of the militant Shia political group Hezbollah, who were accused of orchestrating the terror attack which killed the former Prime Minister.

The whereabouts of the four individuals; Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra, and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are currently unknown. They are not in custody and have not appeared in public since the trial began.

However, experts are disappointed that prosecutors have not examined the question of whether a government is behind ordering the assassination – a question that could have profound international repercussions if it were found to be true.

The Syrian military had occupied Lebanon for decades before 2005 and Rafic Hariri had openly clashed with Syria’s leader Assad.

Clashes between Hariri and the Shia Islamic political party Hezbollah were also pursued, due to Hezbollah’s links with Syria and Iran.

What kind of effect has Prime Minister Hariri’s death had?

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, a militant political party in Lebanon, has accused the Hariri tribunal of being a tool for the US and Israel to work against Hezbollah. Nasrallah promised to target Hezbollah members who co-operate with the UN-backed tribunal.

Hariri’s assassination sparked political turmoil in Lebanon, increasing tensions that existing since the Lebanese civil war. Political tensions have continued in the country since, generating an economic crisis causing the collapse of the currency.

Lebanon has also absorbed more than a million refugees from Syria and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, the awaited verdict on Hariri’s assassination, and now the resignation of the Lebanese government, the political landscape remains drastically unstable.

Violent protests have sprung up across Beirut since the recent explosion. Questions surrounding the unchecked stockpile of explosive materials at the country’s heart emphasise the lack of accountability in the Lebanese government.

Questions also remain unanswered as to whether the explosion was a result of negligence or whether there was any external or intentional interference.

How has the explosion in Beirut affected Lebanon?

Public outrage and calls for drastic change have led to the resignation of every member of the Lebanese government on Monday, August 10.

Demonstrators have come to blame the explosion on government corruption and negligence and an investigation into how ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port is now underway.

20 individuals including those from the Lebanese government, such as Lebanon’s Head of Customs, have been detained.

Accusations against Hezbollah have also been made, claiming they were behind the blast. Hezbollah’s leader, Nasrallah, has denied any link to the blast, claiming that Hezbollah is being accused by rival political groups who aim to demonise Hezbollah.

Nasrallah has also called for a period of “sympathy and solidarity” rather than “political debate”.

While the main theory remains that the blast was down to negligence, internal political or international interference has not yet been ruled out.

Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s Prime Minister since January who has now resigned, had rejected an international investigation into what or who is in fact behind the latest blast.

The political finger-pointing over the latest huge blast mirrors that of the 15-year investigation into Rafic Hariri’s murder, the verdict to which will now be announced on the 18th of August.

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