The blast ripped off balconies along the Mediterranean, smashed windows blocks away and echoed across Beirut, leaving a city shattered by the immeasurable loss.
It happened 15 years, five months and three weeks ago, when Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, was assassinated along with 21 others by a suicide bomber in an explosives-packed van that devastated the waterfront of the Lebanese capital and roiled the Middle East.
Now, as Lebanon’s 6.8 million people grapple with the trauma of the enormous explosions on Tuesday that killed more than 150 people and leveled wide stretches of Beirut, they are also bracing for the verdicts in Mr. Hariri’s assassination from a special U.N.-backed court in the Netherlands.
But just as few people in Lebanon trust their government to hold officials to account for this week’s blasts, almost no one is expecting the full truth about the massacre of Mr. Hariri and his entourage on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
Already, in the aftermath of the latest explosions, political factions are bickering over whether to call for an international investigation along the lines of the one into Mr. Hariri’s assassination.
The Hariri proceedings cost nearly $700 million, took many years and became a virtual industry unto itself, with a staff of nearly 400 and 11 full-time judges — all for a trial never even attended by the four defendants. They are all low-level operatives of Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite political organization. Their whereabouts is unknown and they were tried in absentia.
Even more fundamentally, prosecutors have not addressed the basic underlying question of who — or which government, if any — ordered the attack and why.
The case, much like the blasts that devastated Beirut this week, is a searing example of the debilitating lack of accountability, government dysfunction and volatile political divisions that have long plagued Lebanon.
Even before the explosions on Tuesday, the country had been reeling from enormous debts, a precipitous economic crisis, corruption, the coronavirus pandemic and the burden of absorbing more than a million war refugees from Syria.
Then came the tremendous shock wave that swept across the city. Officials have attributed its terrifying force to a giant stockpile of highly explosive material that the government had neglected for years, allowing it to sit in a dense urban area despite the obvious risks.
President Michel Aoun said the authorities would examine “whether the explosion was a result of negligence or an accident” and “the possibility that there was external interference,” including a bomb or other deliberate act.
But, just as it did with the Hariri assassination, this week’s tragedy has inflamed Lebanon’s deep political divides. On Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, angrily denied speculation that the blasts may have been caused by a weapons cache belonging to the group.
“Several factions who oppose Hezbollah have started spreading lies that the hangar is a weapons, missile or ammunitions depot,” Mr. Nasrallah said, saying the intent was to “terrorize the Lebanese people and paint Hezbollah as responsible for the disaster that befell them.”
The same kind of divisions have loomed over the Hariri case since the beginning. Hezbollah has dismissed the court as a tool of its enemies, Israel and the United States. Its leader, Mr. Nasrallah, has said it would never surrender any followers to the court and publicly warned that traitors would have their hands amputated.
The court had been planning to announce verdicts on Friday but it delayed them until Aug. 18 because of the explosions. But whatever the outcome, it will fail to solve one of the most important cases in the nation’s recent history.
At the time of his assassination, Mr. Hariri, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister with high-placed friends in France and Saudi Arabia, was clashing with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose country’s military had been occupying Lebanon for nearly three decades.
Mr. Hariri had been seeking to end Syria’s domination. He also disliked Hezbollah’s close links with Syria and Iran.
Parliamentary elections were looming and Mr. Hariri, the country’s dominant Sunni Muslim politician, had been likely to return as prime minister.
Immediately after the assassination, suspicion fell on Syria. An early United Nations investigation pointed to the involvement of Syrian high officials and their Lebanese associates.
Under enormous international pressure, Syria withdrew from Lebanon two months later. But the possible roles of Syria and Iran in the assassination were enormously difficult to prove and were not examined at the trial, a lapse that was widely criticized.
“The most shocking thing about the case is how little was invested into finding out who ordered and planned the assassination and who had an interest in killing Hariri,” said Guénaël Mettraux, a jurist appointed by the court as a defense lawyer. “There is a murder but no one with a motive.’’
Instead, the prosecution focused on the activities of the four low-level defendants: Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra. All were linked by investigators to Hezbollah. Records of their mobile telephone data placed the defendants close to the bombing. Their phones went silent immediately afterward.
A fifth suspect, the highest ranking, was dropped from the indictment after he was killed in Syria. The suspect, Mustafa Badreddine, was the head of Hezbollah’s military wing and a close confidant of Mr. Nasrallah.
Fear among Lebanese officials that a trial could not be held safely in Beirut led to the creation of the court, known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, formed in 2009 under a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.
With a mandate to investigate crimes of terrorism based on Lebanese law, the court was assigned a mixed Lebanese and international staff. Not being a U.N. body, half its budget was paid by Lebanon and half by mostly Western governments, including France and the United States, which had supported the creation of the court.
The difficulties were apparent from the start. Investigators sent by the United Nations had to work under heavy security in a country where bombings were routine. Witnesses feared testifying; some recanted or disappeared. Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor sent by the United Nations soon after the killing, reported that his work had been frustrated by the Syrian authorities, who had denied any involvement.
Mr. Mehlis identified close to 20 suspects, including four senior Lebanese security officers and top Syrian officials. But then Mr. Mehlis left the investigation, having been warned that U.N. officials could no longer guarantee his security. Some suspected that his inquiry, rather than resolving the case, risked inflaming conflict among Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni factions.
Mr. Mehlis’s successors were increasingly focused, it seemed, on crime scene forensics.
As the tribunal opened 11 years ago, lawyers close to the prosecution said that evidence about the role of senior Lebanese or Syrian officials, though widely reported, had not risen to the level required at trial. A pretrial judge shocked many by ordering the release of the four high-ranking Lebanese security officers implicated by Mr. Mehlis, citing a lack of evidence.
“I believe there was a desire not to get to the bottom of the killing for political reasons,” said Michael Young, a senior editor with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut who wrote about the assassination. “Important information was available in the first few years.”
Norman Farrell, the current prosecutor, a Canadian, has said he hoped to bring some form of justice, perhaps “incomplete justice’’ even without defendants present.
Asked why the prosecution had not determined who was behind the killing, Wajed Ramadan, a spokesman for the tribunal, replied in an email: “A judicial institution can only try people based on evidence that can stand up in court.”
The trial focused overwhelmingly on technical evidence. Prosecutors produced elaborate maps of when and where calls from the defendants’ cellphones had been made, showing a systematic tracking of Mr. Hariri’s movements. The prosecution even conducted a re-enactment of the explosion on a military base in southern France.
Mr. Mettraux, who now teaches law at the Irish Center for Human Rights at Galway, said the underlying goal of a court prosecution in the Hariri case was unrealistic.
“We defense lawyers contributed to making it look like a real trial,” he said. “We had to argue, but we had no real evidence the accused were even alive.”
Early supporters of the tribunal had said that its aim had been to empower the judiciary and introduce a new era of accountability in a country, and a region, with a history of settling political disputes by assassination. But opinions quickly divided as opponents of Mr. Hariri denounced it as a tool to attack Syria and Iran.
Dr. Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut who has studied Lebanese perceptions of the tribunal, said the polarization surrounding the trial partly reflected Lebanon’s failure to address the trauma of its 1975-1990 civil war.
Massacres and disappearances were never fully investigated; warlords were never prosecuted. That led many Lebanese to question the international push to achieve justice for Mr. Hariri — a wealthy and privileged pro-West politician — rather than resolve the crimes committed during the war.
“The issue was, ‘Why Hariri, and no one before Hariri?’” he said.
Holding the trial far away in the Netherlands, with many protected witnesses testifying behind closed doors, may have further dimmed its reputation among Lebanese.
For some critics of the expanding field of international justice, the Lebanon Tribunal has thrown fresh doubts on the efficacy of creating costly special institutions to deal with distant and complex crimes.
In this case, an inconclusive outcome was produced and the defendants were absent.
“This was a disproportionate use of resources, given the small group of people killed, compared to atrocities elsewhere in the world,” said William Schabas, a law professor at Middlesex University in London. “It will ultimately be symbolic because no one found guilty can be punished. And if they are found, they will have to be tried all over again.”