The statement released yesterday by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announcing that its chief investigator, Naguib “Nick” Kaldas, will be leaving on February 28 is more bad news for the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare. While officially Kaldas is departing because he committed only for one year, and will resume his duties as deputy commissioner of the New South Wales police, there is doubtless more to the matter than that.
How obvious that becomes when reading the tribunal’s statement. If Kaldas’ end of term was scheduled, then why has Bellemare not already started identifying a replacement, as the statement reveals? Then there is the telltale wording suggesting the decision was not routine. The passage indicating Bellemare’s expectation that Kaldas might have renewed his contract, surely possible in itself, was yet indicative at this late date of limited coordination between the investigator and prosecutor.
Then there were the more apparent contradictions, especially Kaldas’ obligatory expression of “optimism” in an investigation he described as “ground breaking”, followed by the jarring intimation that, despite this, he had to return to more pedestrian pursuits in New South Wales. Any investigator worth his salt, like Kaldas, literally lives for a complex, interesting international case like the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Four years into a high-profile affair, chief investigators do not sign on for a year, nor did Bellemare go to the trouble of picking Kaldas for him to clock in for so restricted a period. He hired him to lead an investigation on behalf of a tribunal expected to function for several years.
The statement released by the tribunal is mostly nonsense. Kaldas’ departure is a severe blow to Bellemare’s efforts, another to be added to his forced release of the four generals last April; his inability to foresee, let alone capably contain the repercussions of, the Der Spiegel article last May; and his incomprehensible, and unexplained, decision to declare Muhammad Zuhayr al-Saddiq a person “no longer of interest” to his investigation, when Saddiq was named a suspect in Hariri’s murder, lied under oath, and may have been a Syrian plant to discredit investigators.
This raises the more interesting question of why Kaldas left. We can only speculate, but there are relatively few possible answers. Perhaps the investigator failed to get on well with Bellemare personally, and therefore preferred to go home, as happened with the tribunal’s former registrar, Robin Vincent; or there was fundamental disagreement between Kaldas and Bellemare on the methodology of the investigation; or Kaldas felt that the tribunal would not reach what he deemed to be a successful, or a thorough, outcome; or a combination of these factors.
Whichever reason it is, Bellemare’s delivery of an indictment has again been hampered. We can ruminate further. If Bellemare had been on the verge of issuing an indictment, it is highly unlikely that even personal differences between him and Kaldas would have led to the latter’s leaving at this time. Usually in such situations, a modus vivendi is reached between prosecutor and investigator. Bellemare could have persuaded Kaldas to stay on until an indictment was issued, to avoid undermining their shared objective, and only then would the two have parted ways.
If this conclusion is correct, it means that Bellemare may be further from an indictment than many people believe. It may also imply that Kaldas’ problems have more to do with the mechanics of the investigation and where the trial might lead, or not lead, than anything else.
There was little encouraging in Bellemare’s decision last week to acquiesce in the unfreezing of the assets of Syria’s former intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh. Those assets were frozen at the recommendation of Detlev Mehlis, the first United Nations commissioner looking into the Hariri assassination. At the time, Mehlis had considerable reason to suspect Ghazaleh. In December 2005, the UN commission interviewed the Syrian officer in Vienna, along with colleagues of his, after the Security Council reinforced Mehlis’ mandate.
The fact that Bellemare permitted the Lebanese authorities to release Ghazaleh’s assets appears to confirm that the prosecutor will not, or cannot, aggressively pursue the Syrian angle in the assassination--therefore that his focus may end up being on those suspects in Lebanon. And yet, from much of the information emerging during the past four years, Syria for a long time remained at the heart of the United Nations inquiry, something evident in reading even the more uninformative reports published by the independent international investigation team.
If today Bellemare is unwilling, or unable, to pursue the Syrian connection, that may be because he inherited a weak dossier from his predecessor, Serge Brammertz. That very accusation has been directed against Brammertz by his detractors, notably Detlev Mehlis. However, in my own research, I heard such criticism echoed by senior Lebanese officials involved in advancing the Hariri investigation and tribunal.
As for Bellemare, part of his responsibility before he became UN commissioner was to accurately assess the effectiveness of the dossier he had received from Brammertz. Bellemare essentially legitimized Brammertz’s activities by taking on the case, and in doing so must now demonstrate, beyond mere expressions of confidence, that there was something to build on. Yet with no indictment in sight, Bellemare’s judgment is under scrutiny. Kaldas’ exit hardly reassures us on that count.