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Hariri assassination suspects to be tried in absentia

By the CNN Wire Staff
February 2, 2012 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
A woman walks past a portrait of slain Lebanese former premier Rafiq Hariri displayed near his gravesite in Beirut on August 19.
A woman walks past a portrait of slain Lebanese former premier Rafiq Hariri displayed near his gravesite in Beirut on August 19.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The court says it tried unsuccessfully to locate the men
  • A date for the trial has not been set
  • The men are accused of killing Hariri in February 2005

(CNN) -- The special court investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri announced Wednesday it will try the four accused killers in absentia.

The trial chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, headquartered in the Netherlands near The Hague, said it concluded that "all reasonable steps have been taken to secure the appearance of the accused and to notify them of the charges against them."

The efforts included multiple attempts by Lebanese authorities to find the four men at homes and workplaces, the chamber said. It also noted that the identities of the four men and their indictments received "massive publicity" in Lebanon, making it clear the men were being sought.

The chamber did not announce a date for the trial, but it will be at least four months away.

The United Nations-backed tribunal indicted the four men in June 2011 and made their identities public in July.

Hariri was killed in February 2005 when a bomb struck his motorcade in Beirut. The blast ripped apart his armored car and destroyed the motorcade, killing 21 other people and wounding 231.

All four suspects are charged with conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act.

The indictment says the alleged ringleader was Mustafa Amine Badreddine, while another man, Salim Jamil Ayyash, allegedly headed the "assassination team," responsible for physically carrying out the attack.

They are also charged with committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device; two counts of intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosives; and attempted intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosives.

Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra were responsible for preparing a false claim of responsibility, the indictment says. They are charged with being accomplices to the same four counts.

Investigators used mobile phone data to place Ayyash and other members of the assassination team near locations where Hariri was in the days prior to his death, the indictment says. Similar data placed the men near points along the route of Hariri's convoy on the day of the bombing.

Mobile phone data placed Ayyash in the same area as a vehicle showroom from which the van used in the fatal bombing was purchased, the indictment says. Ayyash called Badreddine twice from the same area, it says.

About 75 minutes after the attack, Oneissi and Sabra made a total of four calls to the Beirut offices of the Reuters news agency and Al-Jazeera television to claim that a fictional group was behind the bombing, the indictment says.

Sabra told Al-Jazeera where to find a videocassette with the claim of responsibility and Oneissi watched to make sure it was picked up, the indictment says. One of the men later called the news network and "demanded with menace" that it broadcast the video.

Prosecutors say all four men are supporters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, and that Badreddine and Ayyash are related to one of its founders.

Responding to the indictment last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said it contained no direct evidence against the men.

"The text (of the indictment) is based on circumstantial evidence whose credibility is contested," he said. "This makes us more convinced that what is happening is highly unjust and politicized, and this is unfair to the suspects."

Prosecutors concede in the indictment that the charges are based heavily on circumstantial evidence, but they argue that such information can be stronger than direct evidence because it does not rely on things like potentially faulty witness accounts.

Hariri's supporters say the businessman-turned-politician was killed because of his opposition to Syria's longtime military presence in his country, and his death led to popular protests, nicknamed the "Cedar Revolution," that led Damascus to withdraw its troops.

Syria has denied accusations that it was behind the bombing.

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