As much of Beirut was heading for lunch under a pale February sun, the suicide bomber moved his van toward an approaching convoy. Moments later, he detonated more than two tons of explosives that shredded the armor-plated car of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, killing him and 21 others. More than 200 people were injured in the 2005 attack.
On Tuesday, a special U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands convicted one Lebanese man of participating in a conspiracy to carry out the attack, but acquitted three others, citing lack of evidence. The men — Salim Jalil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra — had been accused of belonging to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite political organization with a paramilitary wing backed by Iran.
Mr. Ayyash, accused of coordinating the team that carried out the bombing, was the only one convicted by the court. But the court also described all four men as supporters of Hezbollah.
The key figure among the suspects, prosecutors alleged, was Mustafa Amine Badreddinne, a veteran of Hezbollah’s special operations and close to its top leaders. Though among the accused when the trial began in 2014, Mr. Badreddinne was killed in Syria in 2016, ending the case against him.
The prosecution nonetheless used his indictment as evidence of Hezbollah’s crucial role in the operation. He was “a Hezbollah military commander of the first order,” the prosecution said in its closing arguments in 2018. “The attack was masterminded and overseen by Mustafa Badreddine,” it said. The court said on Tuesday that the prosecution had offered no evidence that Hezbollah’s senior leadership was involved in the attack.
The special tribunal, which was requested by Lebanon and sat in a town outside The Hague rather than Beirut for security reasons, has drawn much criticism for focusing on some of the foot soldiers rather than those responsible for an assassination that shook Lebanon and much of the Middle East.
At the end of the six-year trial, with judges from Australia, Jamaica and Lebanon on the bench, the question — who ordered the killing? — still has not been answered.
The verdict was scheduled for Aug. 7, but was postponed after a massive chemical explosion in the port of Beirut that killed more than 170 people, injured some 6,000 and destroyed a large part of the city.
Immediately after Mr. Hariri’s assassination in 2005, general suspicion fell on Syria.
Mr. Hariri, a wealthy businessman and Lebanon’s dominant Sunni Muslim politician, had months earlier ended his fifth term as prime minister in anger at Syria’s continuing interference in his country. According to his associates, Mr. Hariri had recently clashed with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, but he had decided to run again for office. He wanted an end to a presence in Lebanon by Syria’s military and intelligence agencies that had gone on for three decades.
The brazen attack in central Beirut brought more than a million protesters into the streets, and the outcry combined with international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops. Syria has denied any role in the assassination.
Mr. Ayyash will be sentenced at a future date, but he is unlikely to serve any time as he remains in hiding.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly dismissed the tribunal as a tool of its enemies and has threatened to go after any followers who cooperated with it. “The tribunal means nothing to us and its rulings are of no value,” he said at the time of the trial.
To critics, the prosecution of a few low-level Hezbollah operatives is a far cry from the findings of United Nations investigators sent to Beirut soon after the assassination of Mr. Hariri.
A first report called the killing an elaborate professional conspiracy that required “substantial logistical support,” considerable financing and “military precision in its execution.” Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who led a second inquiry, ended a six-month investigation in 2005 with a list of close to 20 suspects, including several senior Lebanese and top Syrian officials.
Diplomats said at the time that Mr. Mehlis had reluctantly ended his mission because he had been warned about two assassination plots against him. At least two Lebanese police officers who assisted the tribunal’s investigations have been killed.
Unable to produce enough proof of who ordered the assassination, prosecutors instead painted a broader picture of the motive for the crime.
One of the prosecutors, Nigel Povoas, told the court that the scale of the operation “undoubtedly had a political purpose” linked to Mr. Hariri’s opposition to Damascus’ long interference in his country.
“Hariri was perceived by those who supported Syrian control as a severe threat to their interests and their security, a proxy of the West,” Mr. Povoas said. “This is the reason, the nonpersonal motive, behind the crime.”
Asked why the prosecution had not determined who was behind the killing, Wajed Ramadan, a spokesperson for the tribunal, said in an email: “A judicial institution can only try people based on evidence that can stand up in court.”
Lacking reliable insider witnesses, prosecutors built their case largely on circumstantial evidence. Much of it involved extensive records of cellphones that were used in proximity to one another as operatives covertly tracked Mr. Hariri’s movements for weeks. They included brief calls, prosecutors said, as the Hariri convoy left the parliament area and moved toward the fatal ambush near Beirut’s waterfront.
The court-appointed defense lawyers had all asked for acquittals, saying there was no proof beyond reasonable doubt that their clients had used the cellphones in question. Electronic records of hundreds of calls could reveal location, date and time, the lawyers argued, but they did not confirm the identity of the users because there were no voice recordings or intercepts and only a few text messages.
Even though the verdicts have been released, the tribunal’s work is not yet over. Defense lawyers may appeal. A new terrorism case has just opened against Mr. Ayyash, the man convicted on Tuesday. The tribunal’s mandate covers only crimes committed during a 14-month period in 2004 and 2005, but its primary focus has been on Mr. Hariri’s killing.
Questions have been raised about the cost of the court’s 400-strong staff, including a roster of prosecutors and 11 full-time judges who were involved in the case. Half of its $60 million annual budget has been paid by Lebanon, with help from Saudi Arabia, and half by voluntary contributions from Western countries and Arab Gulf states. For many critics, this enormous expense has not justified the symbolism of an absentee trial.
Matthew Levitt, an expert on Hezbollah at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he shared the frustration about the absentee suspects.
But he said he saw an upside for victims, their families and for Lebanon, citing what he called a “professional, impartial, third-party prosecution.”
The trial may have achieved “something important,” he said, by “holding Hezbollah publicly accountable for an act of terrorism targeting fellow Lebanese citizens.”