Friday, December 13, 2013

Blaming a victim?

Bo Astrom, the first deputy chief investigator of UNIIIC, the United Nations’ commission that investigated the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, caused a flap this week. He told the Al-Jadeed television station that the absence of the Internal Security Forces officer Wissam al-Hassan from Rafiq Hariri’s motorcade on February 14, 2005, was suspicious, and that he was not persuaded by Hassan’s alibi.

Astrom’s remarks echoed those in a documentary prepared in 2010 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which indicated that UN investigators had their doubts about Hassan. But as Neil Macdonald, the CBC correspondent who helped prepare the documentary, later wrote: “[T]hose suspicions, laid out in an extensive internal memo, were not pursued, basically for diplomatic reasons.”

The reaction of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, was virulent. In a statement, he defended Hassan, who was killed by a car-bomb last year, describing the comments as “garbage on the rails” in “a new hysterical chapter of the campaign against the international tribunal.” The “train has left the station,” he affirmed, and could not be stopped before the trial of his father’s alleged killers begins on January 16.

Hariri’s anger was understandable. The former prime minister does not want the defense to gain any ammunition. The only problem is that neither Astrom nor Macdonald can in any realistic way be regarded as part of a campaign to undermine the international tribunal.

I was interviewed by Macdonald for his documentary, and the tone of the program was critical of the UN investigation after the arrival of Serge Brammertz as commissioner in early 2006. But Macdonald was highly complimentary of the assassinated ISF investigator Wissam Eid. Macdonald’s point was that Brammertz had delayed analyzing valuable telecommunications data, something Eid had done on his own and which had led him to uncover a Hezbollah link in the Hariri killing.

If anything, Macdonald was unhappy not with UNIIIC’s progress, but with its lack of progress on so central an aspect of the investigation. Astrom and others in the Mehlis team shared the same misgivings about Brammertz as did the Canadian journalist.

I met Astrom in May 2010, when I was invited by Mehlis to Manila, to participate with other journalists in the preparation of a press guide to cover extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines. This was done in the context of a European Union assistance program to end such crimes in the country.

I had met Mehlis while he was in Beirut and on several occasions we had communicated on the tribunal. We became friends and it was in a January 2009 interview that I conducted for the Wall Street Journal that he first publicly voiced reservations about the Brammertz-led investigation. At no point during my stay in Manila did Astrom appear to hold views noticeably different than those of Mehlis.

In other words, mentioning the suspicions UN investigators had about Hassan does not mean being part of a plot to damage the tribunal. It would be more credible to reject those suspicions on the basis of the evidence. If Hassan was in on the Hariri assassination, then Hezbollah and Syria, the parties likely behind that crime, had a priceless mole inside Lebanon’s security apparatus and in March 14.

But both were also the prime suspects in Hassan’s elimination last year. While the general maintained open channels to all sides, it could have been his assistance to the Syrian rebels that made him a marked man. How does this square with an assumption that Hassan was working for Syria? And if Hassan was playing both sides, he was surely too important to Syria and Hezbollah to be killed. Which leads to the conclusion, and probably a fair one, that he was no double agent.    

In claiming Astrom’s comments were part of an alleged plot against the tribunal, Hariri and his followers have unintentionally delayed the transfer of the tribunal process from the realm of political manipulation to one of legal reality – a delay with which the enemies of the tribunal are delighted. For years they have sought to discredit the Hariri investigation as politicized, and have invented stories suggesting that it is all part of a grand conspiracy to target Syria and Hezbollah.

For Hariri to speak in the same language, albeit from the opposing side, only bolsters the adversaries’ claim that the entire process is riddled with trickery and deceitfulness. Moreover, Astrom may conceivably be invited by the tribunal as a witness for the prosecution, so it makes no sense to demolish his credibility beforehand.

However, Hariri is right that the train will soon arrive at the station, even if the outcome of the trial remains uncertain, given the absence of suspects in the dock and clear signs that Brammertz and his successor, Daniel Bellemare, failed to properly investigate all angles of the Hariri assassination. The best thing the former prime minister can do now is allow the legal process to unfold away from politics.

That’s why the Hariri camp’s efforts to discredit Astrom by using Mehlis against him were unwise. In an email on Astrom’s comments he shared with me, sent to the pro-Hariri journalist Fares Khashan, Mehlis chose his words carefully: “These are private views and thoughts of UNIIIC’s former deputy head of the investigation. During my term, Wissam Hassan was at no time a suspect in the case.”

Astrom had not said otherwise, and Mehlis sought to harm neither his former investigator’s reputation nor that of Wissam al-Hassan. That is a useful example for the pro-Hariri camp to follow. Rather than generate more controversy in the run-up to the trial, it should aim to limit it. Lebanon has waited almost nine years for this moment. Allow the trial to begin, and let the truth speak for itself.

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