Manipulation mars the Hariri tribunal


We’ve reached the point where we can assume that virtually everything currently being said about the Special Tribunal for Lebanon dealing with Rafik Hariri’s assassination is manipulation. That includes the statements last week by the former head of the General Security directorate, Jamil al-Sayyed, the former parliamentarian Nasser Kandil, the former minister Wi’am Wahhab, and various pro-Syrian Lebanese mouthpieces, not to mention Syria’s own foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem.

In his press conference on Sunday, Sayyed stated that Hariri had been killed three times: on the day of his assassination; when the four generals, including himself, were arrested; and when they were released. But it’s Syria and its followers who this year have tried three times to kill the Hariri tribunal: after the generals were released, when the opposition falsely described this as a declaration of innocence; when someone leaked selective information to Der Spiegel, which published a flawed account of the Hariri assassination suggesting it was mainly a Hizbullah operation; and this past week, when Syrian and pro-Syrian figures and media made a concerted effort to discredit the tribunal, declaring its work “politicized.”

The Syrians continue to concentrate their forces against the conclusions reached by Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations team conducting the Hariri investigation. It’s not difficult to see why: Mehlis was the only one of the three commissioners who began cornering the culprits. Since then, neither of his successors, Serge Brammertz or Daniel Bellemare, has distanced himself from Mehlis’ broad findings. Had they done so, this would have been difficult to conceal even in their exceedingly terse reports. That is why a Syrian priority is to smear the German judge, even as Syria’s peons have now started biting at Bellemare, whom Wahhab affirmed is dying of cancer.

The misinformation surrounding the tribunal forced its spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, to issue a statement last week saying that speculation about when the body would accuse suspects was unfounded. “There is no set deadline for an indictment,” she said, adding “but this does not at all mean that the prosecutor does not see a need to inform the Lebanese public on whether there is one or not.” It’s a pleasure to know that Bellemare will inform us of something, since we don’t even know what ailment he has been suffering from for the past two months, though some leaked information and an educated guess suggest it is not cancer.

For all the talk of indictments coming soon, Achouri made it indirectly clear that Bellemare just doesn’t have enough yet to accuse anyone. This may be obvious, however repeated enough times it sounds remarkable when we realize that the Hariri investigation began four years ago. A tribunal source admitted to me this past summer that the investigation was “a tough, tough one.” Did this mean there might in fact be no indictment at all? “Theoretically yes,” the person answered, “yet we are optimistic enough to think that this is not a likely scenario.”

However, the prosecutor continues to leave important questions unanswered. For example, Achouri has said that Bellemare no longer considers the so-called “crown witness,” Mohammad Zuheir al-Siddiq, of interest to his case. That’s a peculiar assertion. Recall that it was on the basis of Siddiq’s deposition, among other factors, that the four generals were arrested. Mehlis also felt he had enough to arrest Siddiq as a suspect. Therefore, does his now being off the hook mean the generals are innocent? Prosecution sources say no, that the generals may still be indicted, but that their release was necessary under by the tribunal’s rules. Had Bellemare kept them in preventive detention, he would have had 90 days to indict or declare them innocent. He did not have enough to indict, so he released them to avoid declaring them innocent.

But back to Siddiq. The prosecution today says that it no longer considers him a suspect or a witness. However, if he gave false testimony, there must have been a reason for this. He could have been planted to mislead or discredit investigators, which begs the question as to who put him in such a position. There are also legal implications for lying under oath. Yet the tribunal has simply decided that Siddiq isn’t of value to its work anymore, case closed. How is that remotely explainable or credible?

It is ambiguities like these that have allowed opponents of the tribunal to damage its credibility. Achouri has insisted several times that the tribunal is not “politicized.” Doubtless she’s right, but she’s also missing the point: What’s important is that it’s the others, those who want the tribunal to fail, who are playing politics – perpetually placing the institution on the defensive, seeking to tarnish its conclusions even before they come out. There is no sense being an ostrich on such matters. Punch the tribunal enough times and it will soon feel the pain – all the more so when it has no rejoinder in the way of solid evidence to indentify the guilty.

The continued, coordinated denunciations of the tribunal by Syria and its Lebanese partisans are further evidence of who was behind the killing of Rafik Hariri. There never was anyone else, and United Nations investigators reached that conclusion long ago, which worries Damascus. But what worries those who want to see justice done is something else: Is the Hariri tribunal actually moving closer to punishing the criminals?

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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