STL puts Assad under scrutiny in Hariri case
Nov. 15, 2014
Kareem Shaheen/The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Nearly a decade after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria’s alleged role in Lebanon’s worst political crime in recent history is set once again to take center stage.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon decided Friday to allow prosecutors to present evidence on the breakdown of relations between late Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad, paving the way for the first serious, courtroom examination of Syria’s alleged role in the run-up to the massive bombing.
Defense lawyers said the admission of the evidence would be a “sea change” and major expansion in the scope of the Hariri trial, saying prosecutors were now pointing the finger to Syria as being ultimately behind 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,” said Iain Edwards, a defense lawyer for Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah operative accused of complicity in the attack.
“Let’s call a spade a spade your honor,” Edwards said, adding that it was clear the prosecution were saying that Syria, Assad and his security apparatus wanted the Lebanese prime minister killed.
“With such a dramatic change of course, the defense now has, to a very significant extent, considers how the rest of its trial strategy is to be amended,” he added.
The dramatic development in the case comes at an inopportune time for the Syrian president, who is battling an uprising that has lasted nearly four years.
In an oral ruling, the trial chamber’s Presiding Judge David Re said the court would hear the evidence of MP Marwan Hamade, who survived an assassination attempt in Oct. 2004, Monday.
Hamade is the first of over a dozen politicians, journalists and advisers of Hariri who are scheduled to give testimony in the coming months detailing tensions in the relationship between Syria and Lebanon, aimed at pinpointing a political motive for the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing that rocked Lebanon and led to street protests that ended Syria’s military presence in its smaller neighbor.
“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?” Edwards asked rhetorically, saying the prosecution ought to amend their indictments if they intend to pursue the Syrian track in trial. “We are entitled to know.”
Ghazaleh, head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon during the assassination, had allegedly threatened to break Hariri’s arm if he didn’t support the 2004 extension for ex-President Emile Lahoud’s term.
No Syrian official has ever been charged in connection with the Hariri assassination, and prosecutors have not indicated so far that they intend to formally accuse any officials. The Hague-based court indicted five members of Hezbollah in the case, and their trial in absentia is ongoing.
The announcement came a day after defense lawyers revealed that the prosecution had asked in October to add a telephone number belonging to Assad to a court document, in addition to an attempt to link Hezbollah to the green network of telephones used by the alleged leaders of the assassination plot, including Badreddine.
The Assad revelation led Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk to assert that the Syrian president had a direct link to Hariri’s killers. “Bashar Assad had direct contact with the people that killed martyr Rafik Hariri,” Machnouk told a security conference at the Phoenicia Hotel.
Prosecutors say the political evidence will provide important context to the case and to the telecommunications evidence that shows the movements of the suspects and their tracking of Hariri, and allege that the suspects acted in tandem with political events. They said the evidence may provide the long-sought political motive for why Hariri was assassinated.They say Hariri’s surveillance began in conjunction with the breakdown of relations with Assad, the extension of Lahoud’s term, the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 ordering Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hezbollah, Hariri’s resignation from office and the formation of an anti-Syrian opposition movement that Hariri joined.
In addition, prosecutors say the plot to assassinate the former premier accelerated immediately after a meeting between Hariri and Ghazaleh in Qoreitem Palace in early January 2005, in which he told the Syrian intelligence chief that he intended to bolster Lebanon’s independence from Syria.
Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors have essentially come up with a new theory of the case that implicated Syria, which should have been made clear in the indictment.
The indictment itself does not delve into the political motive behind the assassination, and now only mentions Hezbollah in passing, as a political and military organization in Lebanon that the suspects support.
“The Syrian connection, [or] element, of the prosecution case is indeed a material fact underpinning the charges and therefore ought to have been pleaded in the indictment,” Edwards said. “It is approaching abusive that this significant change of course is happening so very late in the day, 11 or so months after the trial has started, and only a few weeks before the second phase of this trial is due to start. It has happened very late in the day indeed.”