Shamaa at the STL: Rafik Hariri was compelled to pay off Syrian chief Rustom Ghazaleh

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Shamaa at the STL: Rafik Hariri was compelled to pay off Syrian chief Rustom Ghazaleh
Elise Knutsen| The Daily Star/Feb. 12, 2015

BEIRUT: Each month for more than 10 years, aides to Rafik Hariri delivered envelopes stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash to Syria’s chief intelligence officer in Lebanon, according to the former prime minister’s childhood friend and confidant Ghaleb al-Shamaa.

Shamaa, who continued his second day of testimony at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Wednesday, said that Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh received more than $10 million in cash from Hariri between 1993 and 2005.

In the decade before Hariri’s assassination, a safe at the former premier’s residence Qoreitem palace was opened at the beginning of each month and a sum of $67,000 destined for Ghazaleh was taken out, Shamaa told the U.N.-backed tribunal charged with investigating the Hariri’s murder in 2005.

Ghazaleh would often demand additional ad hoc sums during the month, sometimes more than $100,000, which Hariri always obliged. “Once he said he had to refurbish or renovate his house, on another occasion he wanted to buy a car,” Shamaa said.

The payments, Shamaa said, were intended to placate Ghazaleh, who oversaw the vast Syrian security network in Lebanon.

“The money was paid to please him, to keep him happy. … We were not expecting anything in return.”

For years Ghazaleh served as a kingmaker in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrian regime.

“No politician was able to carry out his functions or any other projects … easily and smoothly without pleasing [Ghazaleh] first,” Shamaa told the court.

Shamaa insisted that the money Hariri paid to Ghazaleh was not a payoff or a bribe.

“He was compelled to pay so that he would be able to continue to serve Lebanon. He was not paying this voluntarily, and it was not a donation,” Shamaa said.

If Hariri had refused to pay, “for sure Ghazaleh would have placed many obstacles in the face of his career and of course he would have exerted greater pressure on him,” Shamaa told the court.

It was unclear to Shamaa whether the cash stocked at Qoreitem palace was from Hariri’s personal accounts or from his business interests.

“The money would come in briefcases and be delivered to us at Qoreitem palace. … He had various sources, several accounts from which the money came from,” Shamaa testified.

Records of the cash payments were sometimes written down and later destroyed, Shamaa said.

Hariri “did not consider that it was necessary to maintain those records,” he added.

On the eve of Hariri’s assassination in mid-February Ghazaleh claimed he had not received his monthly sum.

“It was the first time he claimed he did not receive the monthly payment,” Shamaa said.

Despite being “sure and confident” that Ghazaleh had in fact received envelopes filled with $67,000 in early February, Hariri dispatched his trusted security aid Abu Tareq to Ghazaleh’s house in the Bekaa Valley to deliver a second sum.

When Abu Tareq returned, he appeared shaken by his encounter with Ghazaleh who had made exceptionally uncivil comments about Hariri.

“I remember the last words Abu Tareq said to me were ‘God help us,’” Shamaa recalled.

Abu Tareq perished alongside Hariri the following day in a massive blast which tore through the Beirut marina on Feb. 14, 2005.

Ghazaleh is a major general in the Syrian Army currently overseeing operations against opposition forces in Deraa where he hails from.

Shammaa will be cross-examined Thursday by members of the defense representing the interests of five Hezbollah members charged with the murder of Hariri and 21 others.