1 of 2 | Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, pictured in 2004, was killed the following year during a suicide bombing attack in Beirut. File Photo by Mohammed Tawil/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 18 (UPI) -- One of four men charged with assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri 15 years ago was convicted for the crime Tuesday by an international court.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Netherlands found Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty of murder and terrorism in connection with the deaths of Hariri and nearly two dozen others in a Feb. 14, 2005, suicide bombing.
Ayyash, 56, and three others linked to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah were tried in absentia in a proceeding that began six years ago.
Assad Hassan Sabra, Hassan Habib Merhi and Hussein Hassan Oneissi each were acquitted of the charges, which included the attempted murders of more than 200 people injured by the blast. A fifth defendant, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, died in Syria in 2016 and was dropped from the indictment. He was described by prosecutors as "controller of the operation" to assassinate Hariri.
The prosecution said it intends to "carefully examine the findings, which underline these acquittals," and consider whether to appeal within its allotted 30 days prior to the pronouncement of sentence.
The assassination of Hariri, one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni Muslim politicians, surprised many and disrupted Lebanon's political landscape.
Hariri's son Saad Hariri, also a former Lebanese prime minister, said he accepts the verdict but called for punishment for Hezbollah and its Syrian allies.
"The party that should make sacrifices is Hezbollah," he said. "It is clear that the network responsible is from its ranks. We will not rest until the punishment is carried out."
Much of the evidence used to convict Ayyash was based on cellphone data that was recorded before and during the 2005 attack.
The court found that Ayyash and Badreddine coordinated surveillance of Hariri to prepare for the attack, and that Ayyash was the chief perpetrator.
Several countries including the United States and Canada welcomed Tuesday's verdict.
"Although Ayyash remains at large, the STL's ruling underscores the importance of rendering justice and ending impunity, which is imperative to ensuring Lebanon's security, stability and sovereignty," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The United States' top diplomat said the verdict stands as further proof the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and its members "are not defenders of Lebanon as they claim but constitute a terrorist organization dedicated to advancing Iran's malign sectarian agenda."
Global Affairs Canada described the verdict as "a significant milestone" for justice while acknowledging that it may not bring closure to many in Lebanon.
"However, today's verdict upholds the principle of accountability and serves as a small but significant step forward in the continued pursuit for democracy, justice and security in Lebanon," Global Affairs Canada said in a statement. "Canada will continue to strongly support the Lebanese people in these efforts, particularly in the face of existing challenges."
The verdict was handed down as Lebanon attempts to deal with the fallout from a massive explosion at a port in Beirut in early August that killed at least 170 people and injured thousands more.