Friday, May 1, 2009

Accountability time for UN investigators

The release of four Lebanese generals by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon considering the murder of Rafik Hariri has shocked many in the March 14 majority, prompting them to assume that there will be no justice for the late prime minister. That may end up being true, but it's too early to affirm such a thing; and the generals' liberation came as no surprise.

If anyone, or anything, came out of the decision looking worse off, it was not the Lebanese judiciary; it was the United Nations commission that has spent the last four years investigating the crime, and which, after 2006, managed to add nothing new to its file on the generals to justify their continued detention. Months ago judicial sources in Beirut knew their release was imminent, precisely for that reason. We can, of course, assume that there was nothing to add, but anyone who recalls the behavior of the generals after the Hariri assassination (the clumsy efforts at altering the crime scene mentioned by the first UN investigator, Peter Fitzgerald, or the highly suspicious distribution of the video of Ahmad Abu Adas, who claimed responsibility for the killing) could not readily make such a case.

It is time to ask what in heaven's name the Belgian investigator, Serge Brammertz, did during his two years in office. This question has repeatedly surfaced among members of the Lebanese judiciary, outside observers, and, most compellingly, Brammertz's predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. In an interview in January 2008, Mehlis damningly observed that he had not "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."

The Belgian did identify "persons of interest" in his reports, but Mehlis quickly cut that idea down to size as well by observing that "a 'person of interest' is definitely not a suspect. If you have identified suspects in a case like this one, you don't allow them to roam free for years to tamper with evidence, flee the country, or commit similar crimes."

Was Mehlis correct? It's difficult to say, but it's far more difficult to make the contrary argument when Brammertz and his successor, Daniel Bellemare, have together spent three and a half years looking into Hariri's assassination, yet we still remain many months away from any kind of formal legal accusation. Time, like silence, can be eloquent, and since 2006 the UN investigation has eaten up an ever greater amount of time while its commissioners have become increasingly silent on their alleged progress.

There are compelling signs to suggest that Brammertz did little of consequence while in Beirut. He unnecessarily reopened the crime scene when there were already three reports suggesting that the explosion that killed Hariri had been above the ground. Brammertz focused too much on analysis of the crime, at the expense of a police investigation that would have required identifying suspects, comparing their testimonies, making arrests, playing suspects and witnesses off against one another, and going to the heart of the matter on who killed Hariri. For the investigators there was little doubt about who committed the crime; all it took was competently following that thread down the decision-making hierarchy. We're still waiting.

What does the freeing of the generals tell us about the UN investigation? Unfortunately, it hits at a central contention presented by both Fitzgerald and Mehlis, namely that when Hariri was eliminated in an extensive conspiracy, the Lebanese security and intelligence services were acting with and under the auspices and authority of the Syrian intelligence services. By releasing the generals, Bellemare admitted he could not fit the four into that relationship. Yet such a relationship cannot seriously be doubted by anyone who knew how the Syrian-led system in Lebanon functioned, which really points us more to the failings of the UN commission, Brammertz's in particular, than to the inaccuracy of Fitzgerald's and Mehlis' findings.

In his submission to the pre-trial judge, Bellemare wrote, in a footnote to paragraph 13, that a "very limited number of documents" were provided by the UN commission in the response to the pre-trial judge's request on whether to hold or release the generals - the vast majority coming from the Lebanese. This tells us that the international investigation offered up very little on the generals, who until yesterday happened to be the only suspects held in the crime. So, Bellemare today has the dubious honor of presiding over a four-year investigation with almost no suspects, and none in custody.
Is it time to write off the Special Tribunal for Lebanon? Almost, but we shouldn't be too hasty. Bellemare would have liked to delay the start of the tribunal in order to complete his investigation. It was the Lebanese who insisted he take on his prosecutorial duties earlier rather than later, because they couldn't handle the pressure of detaining the generals much longer. In so doing, they set in motion a legal process that was always, potentially, going to end with the generals' release. Once Bellemare had the four in hand, the tribunal was given a limited period of time to decide their fate.

But does Bellemare have enough to put together an accusation that will stand up in court? Only time, more time, will tell. Bellemare's own competence is also something to watch, since he has never prosecuted a political crime of this nature. Perhaps the assassination of Wissam Eid, the Internal Security Forces officer who was working on telephone intercepts, implies progress was being made elsewhere. However, the right questions aren't being asked: If Bellemare gets nowhere in the end, then precisely at what stage, and why, did the UN investigation fail Lebanon?

1 comment:

EV said...

The release of the generals shows how little substantial data the tribunal has accumulated. That's certainly not a good sign for justice or whatever is upcoming of it.