LONDON — Almost nine years after Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was killed by a truck bomb, an international tribunal opened hearings into the case Thursday in a courtroom in the Netherlands with lawyers and judges clustered around a mock-up of the crime scene in Beirut.
The prosecution likened the result of the attack to a “man-made hell.”
But notably absent from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon, in a former spy agency office on the outskirts of The Hague, were the four accused who have been shielded from arrest by Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group that supports President Bashar Assad of Syria in its civil war.
The trial of Assad Hassan Sabra, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan, Oneissi and Mustafa Amine Badreddine is the first time that an international tribunal has tried defendants in their absence since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. If they are convicted, the four are entitled to a new trial if they are apprehended.
The tribunal has spent about $325 million in preparation for the hearings into the attack that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005, in an assassination that convulsed the region and inspired protests against Syria’s influence in Lebanon.
The prosecution said Thursday that Hariri had been traveling in a convoy of six vehicles and was in an armor-plated Mercedes. Some of the cars were fitted with jamming devices to prevent the triggering of explosives by mobile phone signals. Those electronic devices supported the argument that the explosives were detonated manually, the prosecution said.
The court was shown CCTV images of a white Mitsubishi van moving across Beirut as the convoy set off.
It is the first time an international tribunal has tried defendants in their absence since the Nuremberg trials.
The van is seen moving slowly past the building shortly before the convoy drives by, traveling in the same direction. Then the prosecution showed a photograph of the scene of the blast and the huge crater it created, measuring around 35 feet across and 6 feet deep.
“The attackers used an extraordinary amount of high explosives, far more than was required to kill their main target,” the prosecution said. “It is not that the perpetrators did not care if they killed their fellow citizens. They intended to.”
The suicide bomber was killed by the blast.
The attack took place between the St. Georges Hotel and the adjacent Byblos building, in “a man-made canyon” that concentrated the force of the blast, the prosecution said.
Using records from more than 50 cellphones, prosecutors plan to describe how the accused meticulously tracked Hariri’s movements for months and procured the van that detonated as his convoy left Parliament en route to his residence.
As the hearings unfolded Thursday, the prosecution went into painstaking detail about the location and duration of calls as the accused conspirators communicated among themselves in what was depicted as close surveillance of Hariri for weeks and months before the bombing.
With the date of the bombing approaching, the prosecution said, the suspects purchased several new phones as the conspiracy widened and the level of surveillance increased dramatically.
“Wherever the prime minister went” in Lebanon, the prosecution said, cellphones linked to the conspirators were used close by.
Hundreds of prosecution witnesses are expected to be called, and the trial will take months and possibly much longer.