Thursday, April 3, 2008

The slow boat to the Hariri tribunal

The slow boat to the Hariri tribunal
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 03, 2008

When Syria's foreign minister and one of its Lebanese marionettes both mention the Hariri tribunal in the space of two days, you know the topic is gaining ground in the Syrian attention span. In an interview with the ANB television station the foreign minister, Walid Moallem, stated that Syria had been offered "deals" by "friends of the tribunal and others," in exchange for facilitating a presidential election in Lebanon. Moallem specified that the offers ranged from "killing the tribunal and freezing it for several years to not participating in its financing." He insisted Syria had rejected all options, because it "has no connection to the crisis in Lebanon or the tribunal."

On Tuesday former Minister Wiam Wahab, one of Syria's licensed spokesmen, released a statement saying that Muhammad Zuheir al-Siddiq, who is both a key witness and suspect in the Hariri murder and who now resides in France, had vanished and "may have been kidnapped and liquidated." Nothing suggested the story was correct.

Moallem's comments were interesting because he protested too much. His insistence that Syria had nothing to do with the crisis in Lebanon and Hariri's murder affirmed that it did. That was the point. The fact is that Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeatedly brought up the tribunal with his Arab interlocutors, including Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. Moussa's statement on the matter to an Arab foreign ministers' gathering several weeks ago was leaked to the Kuwaiti Al-Qabas daily. He told the ministers that when he had traveled to Damascus to ask for help in resolving the stalemate in Beirut, Assad showed no interest in Lebanon, instead inquiring about the tribunal. Assad's message was clear, as was Moallem's in his interview: As long as the tribunal question remains unresolved to Syria's satisfaction, the deadlock in Lebanon will persist.

But Moallem's statement, like Wahhab's implied threat, could signal something else as well. As the tribunal goes forward, the Syrian regime may find that it has to clean house in preparation for an accusation. By underlining again that Syria was not involved in the Hariri killing, was the foreign minister laying the groundwork for a time when such involvement cannot be proven because all suspects will have by then disappeared?

Certainly the former Syrian vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, was playing on that theme when speaking to an Italian news agency. He noted that a prime suspect in the Hariri assassination, the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawqat, had also gone missing and would, Khaddam predicted, meet the same fate as the late interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who either committed suicide or received help in doing so. This could have been Khaddam just throwing a firecracker into the chambers of the paranoid Syrian leadership; or it could have been a preventive measure to avoid Shawqat's elimination. Whichever it was, the old serpent knows the tribunal is beginning to hit home in Damascus.

Not that there was much in the most recent report of Daniel Bellemare, the latest United Nations commissioner investigating the Hariri assassination, to either alarm or reassure the Syrians. The document was destined more to avoid providing information than the contrary, and showed that one could be even more taciturn than Serge Brammertz.

Bellemare insulted our intelligence by telling us more than two years after the UN investigation began that the "Commission can now confirm, on the basis of available evidence, that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out the assassination of Rafik Hariri and that this criminal network - the "Hariri Network" - or parts thereof are linked to some of the other cases within the Commission's mandate."

What's new here? This obvious conclusion was consistently confirmed in all previous reports, including those written by Brammertz. And why did Bellemare use the awkward term "criminal network," suggesting a mafia hit, when he implicitly endorsed the view of Brammertz (and his predecessor Detlev Mehlis) that Hariri's murder was political, if only by virtue of being linked to other crimes in Lebanon that were plainly political?

But most remarkable was Bellemare's informing us that the "priority is now to gather more evidence about the Hariri network." Well what on earth was the priority in 2006 and 2007? That phrase should have belonged to an earlier report on the investigation, not one put out three months from the investigation deadline set by the UN Security Council.

But even in Bellemare's catalogue of elision, revealing titbits did come through. For example, when he wrote that the commission had "accelerated the pace of its operations" by increasing its Requests for Assistance (RFA) sent to Lebanon and other states from 123 to 256, you again had to wonder what Brammertz was doing while commissioner. This increase could partly be explained by the so-called "new practices" Bellemare has introduced, but for him to more than double RFAs after just three months in office suggested there was a delay to be overcome.

And in the event we didn't get that gathering speed had become a main concern, the commissioner told us that he had increased the number of laboratories his team would have access to, and had put in place a system "offering a new approach to cooperation" beyond issuing specific RFAs, whereby states have been informed of "generic areas of assistance that could match their capabilities and the Commissions requirements." It was not apparent what a "generic area of assistance" was, but it sounded suspiciously like Bellemare was widening his net of inquiry, introducing flexibility in how states responded to his needs, to get whatever more he could on the case. That would have been reasonable in 2005, but not in 2008.

Bellemare also told us, without really telling us, that his deadline for putting together a recommendation for an accusation may not come as soon as many would like. Already, in his meetings with foreign representatives, the commissioner has said that if he needs to extend his deadline beyond June to tighten his prosecution case, he will do so. The report suggested that he is quite likely to act on that basis.

What is one to make of the UN report? The most charitable thing one might say about it is that Bellemare did his best to conceal the fact that Brammertz had worked too slowly. But we won't know how true that interpretation is before the new commissioner puts together an indictment. However, if the Syrians start cleaning the decks to neutralize a legal accusation against the regime, then Bellemare had better hurry up.

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