x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hizbollah members talk to tribunal investigating Hariri murder

Leader Nasrallah says no one in group is suspect in assassination, and warns investigators to refrain from media leaks.

BEIRUT // The militant group Hizbollah has been co-operating with investigators from the special tribunal for Lebanon pursuing the murderers of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. In an interview on Wednesday with Hizbollah's media wing, Hasan Nasrallah, the group's leader, said 12 members or close confidants of the group have been interviewed as witnesses and an additional six officials have been asked to testify before investigators but that prosecutors have assured the group that none of its members is considered to be a suspect.

He warned, however, that Hizbollah would re-evaluate this co-operation on a case-by-case basis in light of what Mr Nasrallah called an orchestrated campaign to discredit the movement. European media reports based on anonymous sources have claimed the tribunal is considering indicting members of the Shiite militant group for participating in the 2005 car bomb murder of Hariri. Mr Nasrallah denounced the claim as anti-Hizbollah propaganda designed to weaken the group and blamed Syria, which many Lebanese are convinced killed Hariri.

"We have to differentiate between what is being said in the media, what was directly addressed with the investigation panel, and what we have heard from them," Mr Nasrallah said. "A meeting was held between Hizbollah delegates and officials at the attorney general's office, and they confirmed that [the 18 people] were summoned as witnesses, not as suspects." Hizbollah has always denied any participation in the Hariri murder plot, which also claimed the lives of 22 other people along Beirut's seaside motorway on February 14 2005, and Mr Nasrallah issued a gentle warning on Wednesday to investigators to refrain from accusing the group through media leaks, as he implied they had done in the past. He also urged them to investigate the statements of several witnesses, who later retracted their comments or were otherwise discredited. He implied that the continued co-operation of the group might depend on such action being taken.

"The panel has a chance to rebuild trust. For instance, I suggest the following: trying the false witnesses and this would guarantee that we'll not have more such witnesses," he said. "One expert told me that it is possible to rely on witnesses without giving us the opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with them. Trying false witnesses guarantees no one would dare to make a false statement."

"[And] trying those who made the leaks," he added. "They can search for them and try them. Everyone who leaks information is disrupting the investigation and distorting it." One former US law enforcement official briefed on the progress of the tribunal confirmed that Hizbollah members were under investigation for serving as a support and logistics cell for what appeared to be a Syrian assassination squad. The official refused to supply evidence or allow his name to be used.

"Over the next few months, these tensions will continue to mount as it becomes clear to Nasrallah that his men have been caught co-operating with the killers," he said. "I can't say for sure if the assassination was ordered by Hizbollah or by Syria, or both, but I have seen strong evidence linking members of the group to the assassination. It won't serve them very well to deny it at this point; I would think they'd be preparing scapegoats to turn over to the tribunal for trial pretty soon."

One Hizbollah security commander responsible for Beirut dismissed that idea. "People were very worried on the streets until Sayed Hassan spoke last night," he said. "Now we know that these are lies being pushed by enemies of the resistance. By pointing fingers at Hizbollah, the Americans, Israelis and Saudis hope to weaken the resistance. But it's a lie, none of us was involved in the killing of Hariri and it's impossible for them to weaken us as a party or military force. Sayed Hassan warned everyone to forget this idea and that has reassured our people."

The official, who cannot be named as Hizbollah military and security officials are barred from speaking to the press, said that while Mr Nasrallah's speech was partially intended to explain the group's position to the outside, its primary function was to reassure his own supporters that no outside force could weaken the resistance. "Yes, the whole world wanted to see what he would say, but the most important thing was that he wanted to calm our members and supporters who were growing more and more upset at the accusations that members could be arrested or tried," he explained.

Both Mr Nasrallah and the official said that any further co-operation with the tribunal would be handled on a case-by-case basis, but the official noted that any attempt by the Lebanese government to arrest and turn over Hizbollah's leadership for trial would be poorly received by Lebanon's Shiite community, which strongly supports the group. "We have not said anything on this matter, but by my personal estimation, the streets would go crazy if they tried to arrest any of our leaders or members," he said.

Part of the problem, according to the official, is the inherent lack of trust between Hizbollah and the government led by Hariri's son, the prime minister, Saad Hariri. "Not very many people in our community trust [Saad] Hariri," he explained. "He is seen as an agent of the Saudis and Israelis. But even if we did, his authority as prime minister means nothing to Hizbollah. We work off the authority of our own leaders, not his. But the more they accuse us of this, the less trust you will see. And eventually, violence."

mprothero@thenational.ae