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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Aftermath of former Lebanon security chief's combative special tribunal testimony

Jamil Al Sayyed recognised his country's most significant political fissure in 'highly politicised' proceedings

Jamil al-Sayyed questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal. EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
Jamil al-Sayyed questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal. EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

During last week’s appearance before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Jamil Al Sayyed was a combative witness, questioning both the legitimacy of the trial and the investigation into the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

As the head of the country’s general security at the time of the assassination, Mr Al Sayyed was initially tasked with scrutinising the murder before international investigators were brought in.

“If they had left the matter in our hands, we would have been able to reach a better result,” he said during his testimony.

Instead, the case was transferred to the UN International Independent Investigation Commission.

Mr Al Sayyed’s contempt for the commission was clear last week. “When I look into your glassy eyes, I realise that Hitler isn’t dead. He’s still living in you,” he told judges as he recounted an encounter with a member of the UN investigation.

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Mr Al Sayyed and three other Lebanese security officials associated with Syria’s occupation of Lebanon were held in custody for four years in connection with the case, being released only after an order by a judge at the tribunal.

In 2011, four years after being established, the tribunal indicted five men — Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Assad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi — on charges of terrorism and murder.

The five were all believed to be high-ranking members of Hezbollah, and all are being tried in their absence.

Hezbollah, with whom the 68-year-old Mr Al Sayyed is politically allied, has called the tribunal an illegitimate Zionist plot.

During his testimony, Mr Al Sayyed also recognised Lebanon’s most significant political fissure.

“Almost half of Lebanon is with Syria and the other half is against Syria, but Lebanon cannot be governed without the other half. This is the nature of the country,” Mr Al Sayyed said.

Such polarisation is one of the possible reasons for the apparent lack of public interest.

“No matter what the outcome, a good portion will continue to think what they think,” said Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC. “I think people have their minds set.”

Lebanon’s various sects each have their own stories — Mr Al Sayyed last week testified that Mr Hariri had never supported UN resolution 1559, which called for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon as well as the disarmament of Hezbollah.

It ran contrary to the notion that he had been killed because of his support for it, he said. Mr Al Sayyed also presented Mr Hariri as someone who remained supportive of Syria until his assassination, and blamed Israel and the US for his death.

“There is no doubt that this is highly politicised and the fact that it took so much time — I was in the first delegation that was invited to visit the tribunal five or six years ago. We were expecting tangible results before that,” said Sami Nader, who directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut.

“It can serve as a benchmark for the Lebanese justice system, and it hasn’t done that either,” Mr Nader said.

But the time the STL has taken is not exceptional said Benjamin Durr, an expert on international criminal proceedings.

“That’s one of the problems of international law and the tribunals — it takes so long and the people who were affected by the crimes and the communities and the countries very often have moved on,” he said. “The tribunal for Yugoslavia closed last year — that lasted 25 years."

However, the STL is unique among international tribunals as “terrorism … has never been a charge, it’s not a core international crime”, Mr Durr said.

“It’s also never happened before that trials have been held [for defendants] in absentia.”

Mr Al Sayyed turned down a request from The National to comment further on his testimony.

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