A United Nations-backed tribunal found a member of the Lebanese group Hezbollah guilty of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive bomb blast in 2005.
Three other Hezbollah suspects were cleared on Tuesday.
The verdict by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) – an international court based near The Hague, Netherlands – came more than 15 years after Hariri was killed on February 14, 2005, along with 21 others in the huge explosion in the capital, Beirut.
The four members of Iran-backed militia and political party Hezbollah were accused of organising and carrying out the attack, although the group was not formally charged and denied any involvement.
The four – Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi, and Hassan Habib Merhi – were tried in absentia as Hezbollah has refused to disclose their whereabouts.
Ayyash used a mobile phone identified by prosecutors as critical in the attack, a judge said.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt” the evidence showed that Ayyash used the phone, Judge Micheline Braidy said, reading a summary of the 2,600-page verdict.
However, prosecutors provided insufficient evidence to prove the three others were accomplices, said Judge Janet Nosworthy.
Hezbollah members face trial in absentia at The Hague
‘Designed to cause fear’
Presiding Judge David Re said the evidence was largely based on mobile phone network data with the suspects accused of tracking Hariri’s movements in the months leading up to the attack, and the phones going “dark” after the blast.
Judge Janet Nosworthy four different networks of mobile phones “were interconnected and coordinated with each other, and operated as covert networks at the relevant times”.
The court found the killing was politically motivated in an “act of terrorism designed to cause fear in the Lebanese population”.
“The tribunal has found beyond a reasonable doubt that a suicide bomber triggered the blast,” said Re in reading out the verdict.
‘Justice delayed’: Hariri trial verdict to increase tension
The assassination plunged Lebanon into what was then its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, setting the stage for years of confrontation between rival political factions.
Syrian forces, which were based in Lebanon for more than 40 years, were forced to withdrawal from the country as many Lebanese blamed Damascas for the killing.
The government of Bashar al-Assad has denied any involvement.
The tribunal exonerated both the leadership of Hezbollah and Syria citing a lack of evidence.
“The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Hariri and some of his political allies,” said Re.
“However, there was no evidence Hezbollah’s leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri’s murder, and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement in it.”
Hezbollah has described the tribunal as a conspiracy against the movement. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah insisted on the innocence of the suspects last week.
‘Go after the leadership’
Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer, said the tribunal did not shed new light on the killing, but was noteworthy for being the first trial of its kind to rely entirely on “cell site analysis” as evidence.
He noted after all the time and money spent, only mid to low-level perpetrators were convicted in the assassination.
“If you go back to the beginning of the trial, in the opening speech of the prosecutor there was a reference to the Syrian regime, so there was an attempt to implicate the Assad regime and to go after the leadership. Unfortunately, whether it is a lack of independent evidence to produce such a link is anyone’s guess,” Cadman told Al Jazeera.
“From the outside perspective, there would have been more satisfaction after close to $1bn spent that it would have gone after those who actually ordered it.”
Initially five suspects were identified – all Hezbollah members. Charges against one of the group’s top military commanders, Mustafa Badreddine, were dropped after he was killed in Syria in 2016.
Ayyash’s sentence will be handed down at a later date. The UN-backed court has no death penalty and maximum jail sentences are life imprisonment.