A United Nations-backed tribunal on Tuesday convicted a member of Iran-backed Hezbollah of conspiring to kill former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a 2005 bombing that set the stage for years of confrontation between Lebanon's political forces.
The verdict comes as the Lebanese people are still reeling from the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 178 people this month, and from a devastating economic meltdown.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire with close ties with the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, was seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon. He led efforts to rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war.
His son, Saad, also a former Lebanese prime minister, reacted to the verdict by saying it was time for Hezbollah to assume responsibility.
"Hezbollah is the one that should make sacrifices today," he said. "I repeat: We will not rest until punishment is served."
Delivering their verdict over several hours, the judges said there was insufficient evidence against three other men charged as accomplices in the bombing and they were acquitted.
"The trial chamber is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the Prosecution has proved the guilt of Salim Jamil Ayyash on all counts charged," said Presiding Judge David Re.
The investigation and trial in absentia of four alleged Hezbollah members has taken 15 years and cost roughly $1 billion. The three other defendants are also alleged members of the Shi'ite Muslim group, but their role in the attack was not sufficiently established.
The 2,600-page ruling found Ayyash had affiliation with Hezbollah, and formally convicted him of a terrorist attack and the homicide of Hariri and 21 others. He could face up to life imprisonment at a later sentencing.
Judges said they found no evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah or the Syrian government had played a part, although it noted that days before he was slain, Hariri endorsed a call for Syria to end its then-occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the bombing.
While the judges did not say who had planned the attack, they said it was "very likely" that the decision to kill him was only made after a Feb. 2, 2005, political meeting at which participants had agreed to call for the "immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon."