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3 Hezbollah members acquitted of involvement in Rafic Hariri assassination

Three Hezbollah members on trial for their involvement in the assassination of Rafic Hariri have been acquitted on all charges

Three of four Hezbollah members on trial in absentia for their involvement in the assassination of Rafic Hariri on 14 February 2005 have been acquitted on all charges in the indictment.

Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hasan Habib Merhi were acquitted of the charges they faced because the trial chamber could not prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Salim Jamil Ayyash, meanwhile, was found guilty on five charges, including the intentional homicide of Rafic Hariri and 21 other persons by pre-meditation by using explosive materials.

Today's verdict does not include sentencing, which is expected to be handed down during a later hearing.

Hariri was killed on 14 February 2005 when 1,800 kilograms of TNT explosive hidden in a Mitsubishi van was detonated next to his motorcade. The blast left 22 dead, including several of Hariri's bodyguards and then-Minister for the Economy Bassel Fleihan.

Relatives of the victims, including Hariri's son Saad, and a representative of Fleihan's family, heard the verdict from the court in the Hague.

Before the verdict was announced, the tribunal judge told the court there was no evidence the Syrian government or Hezbollah leadership were directly involved in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, though both had clear motives.

READ: Hariri's son calls for restraint ahead of UN-back court's verdict in his father's assassination

The court instead cited telephone records as evidence the four men on trial were involved. According to the judge, however, the records, which included 33 calls in the hour leading up to the assassination, did not prove beyond reasonable doubt three of the four were involved and aware of the plot prior to the attack.

The verdict was due to be announced on 7 August, but the UN-backed tribunal chose to delay the judgement in the aftermath of the 4 August explosion in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, which left nearly 200 dead and thousands more injured.

The trial and investigation, which has been held under Lebanon's criminal laws and run by both Lebanese and international judges, has been 15 years in the making and cost approximately $1 billion.

Lebanese politicians, including President Michel Aoun, have called for all parties to accept the verdicts handed down by the special tribunal saying: "We have to accept what will be issued by the STL (Special Tribunal for Lebanon), although delayed justice is not justice."

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has said the verdicts will change nothing for the organisation, reiterating last week that the Iranian-backed Shia militia does not recognise the court.

Speaking in a televised address, Nasrallah said: "For us [Hezbollah] it will be as if no decision was ever announced… if our brothers are unjustly sentenced, as we expect, we will maintain their innocence."

Several observers have warned of violence between Hezbollah and Hariri supporters in Lebanon after the verdict is announced.

READ: What Rafic Hariri's trial won't expose

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