- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BEIRUT — A long-awaited international indictment unsealed Wednesday offers no direct evidence linking four Hezbollah suspects to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, despite years of painstaking investigations.

The indictment, which relies heavily on circumstantial evidence such as telephone records to link the men to the crime, played into efforts by the powerful, Iranian-backed Hezbollah to discredit a case that has consumed and divided Lebanon for more than six years.

“The text in our hands now [is] based on analysis and not clear evidence,” Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech. “Those who were indicted should not be called charged but unjustly treated.”

Much of the information contained in the indictment had been leaked to the media over the past two years, which Mr. Nasrallah said was a sign that the probe was tainted.

Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah has vowed never to turn over the suspects, although a trial may be held in absentia.

“The full story will, however, only unfold in the courtroom, where an open, public, fair and transparent trial will render a final verdict,” said Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor at the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The suicide truck bomb that killed Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, was one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

In the six years since his death, the investigation has sharpened some of Lebanon’s most intractable issues: the role of Hezbollah, which commands an arsenal far greater than the national army; and the country’s dark history of sectarian divisions and violence.

Hariri was one of Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni leaders; Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group.

Prosecutors analyzed a vast network of telephone records to link the “assassination team” to the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, according to the 47-page indictment.

Investigators tracked the movements of the suspects using their phones’ locations as recorded by cellphone towers.

The indictment says the records showed “a coordinated use of these phones to carry out the assassination.” According to the records, there was a flurry of calls shortly before Hariri’s slaying, but they stopped two minutes before the explosion.

The phones were never used again.

The indictment also says the assassins tracked Hariri’s movements over several weeks to establish the routes and movements of his convoy and the location of his vehicle in it.

Prosecutors acknowledge in the indictment’s preamble that they have no direct evidence linking the suspects to the attack. The file relies to a large extent on circumstantial evidence “which works logically by inference and deduction,” the indictment said.

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