Hezbollah and its ally Syria say ‘false witnesses’ throw Hariri tribunal into doubt

By Zeina Karam, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hezbollah, Syria seek to discredit Hariri tribunal

BEIRUT — Hezbollah and its ally Syria are mounting a campaign to undermine the U.N. tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by raising doubts about the court’s neutrality ahead of indictments expected to accuse members of the Shiite militant group in the killing.

Many Lebanese fear that turmoil could erupt in the fragile country if the Netherlands-based court accuses Hezbollah, which boasts Lebanon’s strongest armed force and is a partner in a unity government with pro-Hariri parties. There are worries that indictments could cause the government to collapse or spark clashes between the Shiite fighters and Hariri’s mainly Sunni allies.

The case has already opened tensions within the government, which is led by Hariri’s son Saad. Hezbollah and its allies have pressured the government to stop cooperation with the tribunal, a step Saad Hariri has rejected.

Now, Syria and Hezbollah have stepped up attempts to discredit the tribunal, contending that “false witnesses” who gave misleading or fabricated testimony to U.N. investigators have irretrievably poisoned the case.

This week, Syria’s judiciary issued arrest warrants against 33 people for allegedly misleading the investigation, among them figures close to Saad Hariri, including his media adviser, several judges, senior security officers and journalists working in Hariri-owned media outlets.

“By highlighting the case of false witnesses and other mistakes in the investigation, its opponents have succeeded in creating doubts over the tribunal’s credibility,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University.

Beyond seeking to discredit the court, the warrants could also further enflame the two sides in Lebanon — since the implication is that Hariri’s allies tried to frame Syria or Hezbollah in the killing.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently acknowledged that false witnesses “misled the investigation … damaged Lebanese-Syrian relations and politicized the investigation.” But the government has not moved to put them on trial. The U.N.-appointed prosecutor has insisted that testimony from false witnesses will not contribute to the indictments.

The tribunal could issue indictments as early as this month. Tribunal officials have not yet named any individuals or countries as suspects, but Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has said he expects members of his group to be indicted. He dismissed the tribunal as an Israeli plot and vowed not to hand anyone over for prosecution.

Fear over chaos stemming from indictments is so strong in the region that in July, the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia — once bitter rivals — traveled to Lebanon together in an unprecedented show of cooperation to calm tempers. This week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that “dark clouds have been gathering in Lebanon’s skies,” but he added an implicit message to Syria and Hezbollah that the tribunal’s work must continue.

The suicide truck bomb that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005 was one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Suspicion fell on neighboring Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country. Syria has denied having any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus. Huge street demonstrations helped end Syria’s 29-year military presence, paving the way for pro-Western parties to head the government in subsequent elections.

But four pro-Syrian generals arrested early on in the U.N. investigation were released last year for lack of evidence.

This week’s arrest warrants stem from a lawsuit filed last year in Damascus by one of those generals, former General Security chief Maj. Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, claiming that those named in the warrants used false witnesses to try to implicate him and Syria.

The tribunal’s investigation of the killing has seen several acknowledged instances of false testimony.

Among them is Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq, a purported Syrian intelligence official who was at first said to be a key witness implicating Syria but whose information was later discredited at the U.N. commission’s recommendation.

Another is Husam Husam, a Syrian barber and self-proclaimed intelligence operative who at first implicated Syrian officials in testimony to investigators, then recanted, saying the Hariri family paid him to frame Syria. Lebanon’s government dismissed the claim.

will not be displayed