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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Probe into Hariri’s assassination to focus on Al Assad

Witnesses likely to testify about Syrian complicity in Rafik Hariri's death.
A woman prays at the grave of assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
A woman prays at the grave of assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

BEIRUT // Prosecutors at a UN-backed tribunal have started presenting evidence that may point to Syrian complicity in the assassination of Lebanon’s top Sunni statesman.

The trial chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) decided this month to hear the testimony of more than a dozen political witnesses.

They include politicians, journalists and advisers close to Rafik Hariri who will speak about how relations broke down between the former premier and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the months before the assassination.

“Let us not be coy about it: the prosecutor now is putting his case on the basis of Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri,” defence lawyer Iain Edwards told the court before the judges agreed to include the evidence. “Is Bashar Assad going to be formally named as a co-conspirator in the killing of Rafik Hariri? Rustom Ghazaleh? Are they going to be added to the indictment?” he asked, referring to Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s killing. “We are entitled to know.”

The tribunal is trying in absentia five members of Hizbollah accused of complicity in the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanon’s charismatic billionaire former prime minister.

The fresh focus on Syria comes after the investigation has for years stayed away from the involvement of Damascus in the attack that killed Hariri and 21 others.

Fingers initially pointed to the Assad regime as being the culprit behind the massive explosion that targeted Hariri’s motorcade. While the initial investigation stopped short of directly accusing Syria, it said the regime’s intelligence service had thoroughly infiltrated Lebanon and the plot was so intricate and complex that it could not have been conducted without the knowledge of Syrian and Lebanese officials.

In the intervening years, however, Syria’s role took a backstage as leaks about the investigation started highlighting Hizbollah’s alleged involvement. The indictment, made public in the summer of 2011, accused four Hizbollah operatives of complicity in the attack, and a fifth party supporter was added to the indictment last year.

The suspects included Mustafa Badreddine, a top military commander related to Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbollah’s military chief who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

Prosecutors relied on a massive tranche of telecommunications data to indict the suspects. The data allegedly shows how they tracked Hariri until his death, the purchase of a Mitsubishi van that contained the bomb, and the preparation of a false claim of responsibility for the attack.

But prosecutors never gave a motive for why five members of Hizbollah would want to kill Hariri. His Future Movement and Hizbollah were planning to run in joint parliamentary lists in some districts during elections slated for mid-2005. Hariri also enjoyed close relations with Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at the time.

But prosecutors are now saying that the political motive for the crime will be revealed in the testimony of the political witnesses, who will describe the breakdown in relations between Hariri and Mr Al Assad and the subsequent creation of an opposition movement aimed at rolling back Syria’s influence in Lebanon.

Marwan Hamade, a Lebanese MP and former minister close to Hariri, was the first political witness to testify in court last week. His testimony centred around two crucial meetings between Hariri and Mr Al Assad during which the Syrian leader ordered Lebanon’s premier to back the reelection of Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syria general to the Lebanese presidency.

Mr Hamade told judges that Mr Al Assad had threatened to “break” Lebanon over Hariri’s head, and that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had advised the prime minister to resign and leave Lebanon for his personal safety.

Mr Jumblatt himself may testify before the court, and has indicated his willingness to do so. Hariri’s successor, former prime minister Fouad Siniora, will also testify.

Testimony by the witnesses is expected to continue next week.

But it remains unclear how prosecutors plan to link the estrangement of Mr Al Assad and Hariri to the actions of the men suspected of carrying out the bombing. Their whereabouts is unknown and Hizbollah has vowed not to hand them over.

Prosecutors argued that the conspiracy took place in tandem with political developments. The plot allegedly began a month after an August 2004 meeting between Mr Al Assad and Hariri, and after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 ordering the departure of all foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarmament of all militias. This was seen as a threat to Syria’s military presence in the country and the weapons of its ally, Hizbollah.

They also said the plot rapidly gained pace after a meeting between Hariri and Syria’s chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh, in January 2005.

Defence lawyers revealed in a hearing this month that prosecutors were seeking to include a telephone number belonging to Mr Al Assad in court documents, and they were also seeking to link a telephone network used by the alleged commanders of the assassination plot to Hizbollah.

Prosecutors have not indicted any Syrian officials so far, nor have they explicitly said they plan to do so. Still, defence lawyers have called on prosecutors to lay out their theory of Syrian complicity in an amended indictment, and to explicitly say if they plan on formally accusing Syrian officials in the case.

“This ghost of the Syrians is coming out of the cupboard,” said Philippe Larochelle, a lawyer for one of the suspects in the case, at a hearing earlier this month.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae