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Conviction in Hariri case increases pressure on Hezbollah

A special international tribunal has found a Hezbollah agent guilty of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in a deadly blast 15 years ago. Although the decision doesn’t implicate Hezbollah explicitly, it comes at a tense moment for the U.S.-designated terror group, on whom political and financial pressure is growing. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    Two weeks after a giant explosion tore through Beirut, today, a verdict in a trial over another deadly blast 15 years ago.

    A special international tribunal found a Hezbollah agent guilty of assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, this at a tense at a tense time for the U.S.-designated terror group, as political and financial pressure grows.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The suicide truck bomb that killed Lebanon's Rafik Hariri on Valentine's Day, 2005, was sent there by Salim Ayyash, a member of Lebanon's dominant political and military force, Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah.

  • Man:

    The trial chamber therefore finds Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty as a co-perpetuator of count one.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The other three accused were found not guilty. All were tried in absentia, with Hezbollah's leadership refusing to hand over the men, who haven't been seen publicly for years.

    A fifth conspirator, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in Syria four years ago, where he was commanding Hezbollah forces. The former prime minister's son, Saad Hariri, who also recently held the office, was in court for the verdict.

    Afterwards, he spoke to the press, saying: "The one who must sacrifice today is Hezbollah. It has become clear that the killers were from their ranks. They think that for this reason, they will not be brought to justice and punished. I repeat, we will not rest until they are punished."

    The court, however, said it couldn't connect the killer to Hezbollah's leadership, citing insufficient evidence.

    Just days before the verdict, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the tribunal in a speech, saying; "We're not concerned with the special tribunal of Lebanon's rulings. We cling to the innocence of our brothers, should unjust verdicts be issued against them."

    The killing of Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim leader who was close to the U.S. and Gulf Arab states, upended the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon among Sunni, Shia, Christians, and Druze. Hariri had been pushing for the Syrian regime, then occupying the country, to stop interfering in Lebanese politics, and for Hezbollah and other militias to be disarmed.

    Hezbollah is a Shia force formed and funded by Iran. The U.S. has designated it a terrorist organization. The verdict doesn't directly implicate Hezbollah, but the court of public opinion here in Lebanon finds it implausible that the group did not order the bombing. And the results of the inquiry come at time when Hezbollah is under increasing pressure.

    The massive explosion that ripped through Beirut earlier this month, destroying a huge part of the city and killing some 200 people, led to widespread anger directed at the country's political elites, blamed for the mismanagement and decay that led to so much explosive material being left idle.

    Effigies of political leaders, including Nasrallah, were hung from a central square in Beirut, something Lebanon has never seen before. Hezbollah has grown in power and political influence in Lebanon in recent years. For them, it's a self-preservation tactic.

  • Nicholas Blanford:

    The bottom-line rationale for Hezbollah is to maintain what they call the resistance priority. This is maintaining its armed wing, its weapons and so on, and independence to utilize that weaponry.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nicholas Blanford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of two books on Hezbollah. He says the group's political power is based on having the right allies in Lebanese politics.

  • Nicholas Blanford:

    Because it makes it easier to shut down any calls for talking about a national defense strategy, in which perhaps Hezbollah would be blended with the Lebanese army, or it would become a security force along the Southern border with Israel, but under state control. These are anathema to Hezbollah.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Those allies helping Hezbollah maintain power include the Christian President Michel Aoun.

    In the Trump administration's latest attempts to check the group's power, cutting it off from those allies has become a new tactic. Threats to sanction Hezbollah-friendly politicians are growing louder.

  • Nicholas Blanford:

    It would certainly muddle the situation, because you have several powerful politicians, non-Shia, who are closely allied with Hezbollah, who, if sanctions were applied, they would have to weigh up on the one side the benefits of their alliance with Hezbollah and, on the other side, their bank accounts.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Within its own Shia Muslim base, Hezbollah still has strong support, but corruption and an economic crisis have squeezed that loyalty.

    In the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh in Southern Beirut, people are careful to separate their support for the group's resistance against Israel from grumblings about corruption.

    Support for Hezbollah remains strong?

  • Hassan:

    In a defending way, and with its protecting our freedom and our land from Israel, yes, of course. But in the political side, there is something that Hezbollah has gotten wrong, by its allies, of course, first of all, of its allies. They are very corrupt, you know?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When popular protests broke out last year, they called for entrenched political elites to step down, all of them, including Hassan Nasrallah.

    Even some areas of traditional Hezbollah support in the south of the country saw calls for change. The economy was collapsing after decades of corruption and mismanagement by politicians. Hezbollah too has had to cut back on its vast patronage support and services to its fighters and followers, causing some anger.

    But, as tension grows in Lebanon, sectarianism loyalties do too sometimes, as people look to the only leaders they have for protection.

  • Mohammed (through translator):

    Sure, Hezbollah has its people's support. The people would not abandon the resistance. We are with the resistance until death. Even if we are dying of hunger, we are with the resistance until the last breath.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Hezbollah continues to face military pressure from Israel. Both sides are trying to measure their retaliations against the danger of a devastating war.

    As pressure on Hezbollah mounts on several fronts, both domestically and internationally, the possibility of another explosion of violence increases.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.

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