Thursday, February 19, 2009

A road still long for the Hariri tribunal

We were delighted to realize last week that Daniel Bellemare, the head of the United Nations commission investigating the killing of Rafik Hariri and over a dozen others, could speak - so unlike his predecessor Serge Brammertz, who neither spoke nor, we're discovering, investigated.

Bellemare gave interviews to three newspapers, in what was a long-overdue effort to tell the Lebanese what he was up to. However, it was his conversation with the daily Al-Akhbar that was the most interesting, because Bellemare was pressed by the interviewer, Omar Nashabeh, to look at the past, when all the commissioner really wanted to do was talk about the future, specifically the tribunal for Lebanon that will begin operating on March 1 in The Hague. Bellemare demurred, far more than he should have, since Al-Akhbar has a close relationship with one of the four incarcerated generals, Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate. Many of Nashabeh's questions were aimed at discrediting the work of the first UN commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, in particular his report of October 2005, which found "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act."

The newspaper also managed to allow a rather significant misstatement into the published interview, which it has yet to correct on its website. At one point Nashabeh asks, "Do you mean that the continuity [of the investigation] does not mean that everything mentioned in the first report [of October 2005] remains valid until now? Bellemare is quoted in Arabic as having answered: "Did you read the two reports we released? They summarize this matter. We insist on this point because some believe that what Mehlis mentioned remains valid today... What I'm saying is that I'm relying on evidence, not on impressions."

Formulated this way, Bellemare is casting doubt on Mehlis' findings; worse, he seems to be implying that his predecessor's conclusions were based on impressions rather than evidence. I contacted the spokeswoman of the UN commission, Radhia Achouri, for clarification. She wrote back saying it was a mistake, then emailed me the transcript of what Nashabeh had sent her. The key passage, "[w]e insist on this point because some believe that what Mehlis mentioned remains valid today", was actually Nashabeh's question, not part of Bellemare's answer. I would like to think it was an honest blunder, but the implications were serious.

Two items of news leave us pensive about the progress of the UN investigation. The first is what appears to be the near certainty that Bellemare will not issue accusations this year. The commissioner has not said as much, in fact he's avoided saying anything at all on so noteworthy a matter, but all the signs are that he doesn't have enough yet to go to trial. If so, that raises questions about the work and the competence of Serge Brammertz. Sources both inside Lebanon and outside are expressing their doubts. Already one year ago, Mehlis, in an interview with me for The Wall Street Journal, went on record to say that "[f]rom what I am hearing, the investigation has lost all the momentum it had [when Brammertz took over] in January 2006... Unfortunately, I haven't seen a word in Brammertz's reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage."

Information inside Lebanon has, since, confirmed that assessment. Sources told me that Brammertz had all but admitted to the Lebanese before leaving that he hadn't added much to his files during his years as commissioner, while Bellemare, upon arriving in Beirut, said he hoped that within six months he would be more advanced than he was then. One source defended Bellemare, saying he has since hired more investigators, whereas Brammertz had brought in an inordinate number of analysts. That suggested that Bellemare perhaps agreed, at least implicitly, with what Mehlis advised in his interview, when he recommended that he "concentrate on the Hariri case itself; don't try to write a history book. Focus on the whos, hows and whys of the crime. Analysis can never replace solid investigative police work."

Then there is the fate of the generals. In his Al-Akhbar interview, Bellemare had this to say when asked by Nashabeh about the four and their continued detention: "The Lebanese judiciary is sovereign and I cannot, as commissioner, intervene with the Lebanese judiciary... However that does not mean that I don't express my opinion to the Lebanese public prosecutor." He went on to affirm that once the tribunal began operating, the situation would change as the generals would fall under his jurisdiction. They would be allowed to present an application for release, and Bellemare promised that he would work quickly to transfer the files of the Lebanese detainees to The Hague.

Bellemare was noncommittal on whether he would free the generals, but Lebanese sources believe he will do so after their appeals are heard. His answer to Al-Akhbar failed to dispel that view. If Bellemare feels an urge to express his opinion to the public prosecutor on the matter of the generals, presumably it is to disagree with him - at least that's what the context of his phrase suggests. There is also the fact that Brammertz had already told the Lebanese that he no longer needed the generals for his investigation. The Lebanese were unhappy, considered this a cop-out on his part, and retained the four on the grounds that they might either escape if released, or affect the progress of the investigation.

In its rumor box on Tuesday, Al-Nahar reported that the judiciary planned to indict suspects in the Hariri assassination before the June parliamentary elections. It didn't say what the implications of this were, but one can guess. According to the law, Jamil al-Sayyed can run as a candidate in the elections, because until now he has not been charged with anything. Winning a seat would grant him parliamentary immunity. An indictment, therefore, would impede that effort. While Sayyed's candidacy is reportedly still in the air, if the judiciary is thinking of such a measure, then it is expecting the generals to be out by June.

We knew the Hariri tribunal was a long road. However, we shouldn't presume that because it will begin functioning in March, that the road is nearing its end. Indeed, we may only be at the end of the beginning. A road still long for the Hariri tribunal

No comments: