Thursday, September 9, 2010

Witnesses for the dissolution

Officials close to Syria are saying the leadership in Damascus has urged Hezbollah not to pursue the matter of alleged “false witnesses” who gave testimony to international investigators looking into the killing of Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Is that true? The information is difficult to confirm, but there may be a good motive for Syrian reluctance. The prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, may conceivably have in his files affidavits indicating that Syria itself encouraged witnesses to give false testimony to the United Nations inquiry. If so, Hezbollah may effectively be pushing Bellemare to reveal information that Damascus prefers to keep under wraps, especially if the prosecutor does not accuse any Syrians in his first round of indictments.

What is the issue of “false witnesses” about? For starters, the concept itself is a misnomer. If individuals lied to international investigators, and in doing so falsely accused Hezbollah or Syria of Hariri’s murder, then they are guilty not of bearing false witness, which presumably is only something that can be done before a court of law, but of hindering the investigation. In other words, their tarnished testimony should be of less concern to Hezbollah or Syria than to Bellemare and the Lebanese judiciary, which is represented in the prosecution and is entitled to legally punish those obstructing justice.

And does Hezbollah want Syria to return one purported “false witness,” Hussam Hussam, to Lebanon, or perhaps The Hague, so that he can be questioned once more by Bellemare? Then again, to the best of my knowledge Hussam never officially withdrew his testimony, despite his press conference in Damascus in 2005, during which he said that he had been manipulated by the Hariri camp. And how did Hussam Hussam manage to get to Syria in the first place, when he was under scrutiny by Lebanon’s security services?

Then there are the others who might be accused of being “false witnesses,” those who are today Syrian allies. Take Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader might retract what he told the first United Nations commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, but he hasn’t done so yet. And what of those like Saad Hariri or his entourage who offered testimony that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, threatened Rafik al-Hariri in August 2004? What will they do? That’s not to mention the late prime minister’s widow, Nazeq, who has no intention of allowing the tribunal to turn into a whitewash – or more likely a washout.

The discussion over false witnesses can cut in many directions, not all of them to Syria’s advantage. But then why, in his interview this week with As-Sharq al-Awsat, did Prime Minister Saad Hariri declare that false witnesses had misled the investigation? It is unclear, but Hariri may not have had much of a choice. He couldn’t very well blame himself, or his political allies, for having told Mehlis the truth, so he had to blame false witnesses, in the hope that none would ever be brought before the Special Tribunal.

Hezbollah is unconcerned with these nuances. The party sees two advantages in forging ahead in its campaign against false witnesses: first, it is a useful tool to intimidate those individuals who spoke to international investigators, and who might now, quite reasonably, fear being brought before the tribunal as witnesses. And second, the false witness angle means Hezbollah can keep a knife to the neck of Lebanese politicians who gave testimony to UN investigators, regardless of whether, or perhaps because, they are close to Syria.

However, Hezbollah does run a risk with the false witness argument. The most obvious is that it does not know what Bellemare has in hand. Those who have been accused of lying to UN investigators have tended to be involved in what we might call the Syrian side of the case. But Hezbollah has implied that Bellemare will base his upcoming accusations against the party on false testimony as well. If the prosecutor does not produce such witnesses when he issues his indictment, then Hezbollah’s credibility could be damaged.

On the other hand, if Bellemare offers little witness testimony against Hezbollah, this could mean that his case is dependent on some solid evidence and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence. It is very difficult to successfully prosecute a complex political crime like the Hariri assassination by relying heavily on circumstantial evidence. A good defense team could open up holes left, right and center.

One thing is certain. By shifting discussion of the tribunal from an accusation against Hezbollah to one directed against supposed false witnesses, Hezbollah has succeeded in confusing everyone. Few are the Lebanese who will look at Bellemare’s indictment objectively when it comes out. The last thing a tribunal can afford to lose is the advantage of being recognized as a legitimate dispenser of justice. But Bellemare has lost the initiative and must correct this rapidly.

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