Friday, January 17, 2014

Great expectations: The biggest risk in the Hariri assassination trial

As the trial of suspects in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri begins, I confess to having mixed feelings about the process that led us to this stage. Despite the optimism in March 14, the trial comes across as one that makes the best of a process that should have gone differently.

Supporters of the tribunal will continue to defend the length of the investigation as normal in a complicated crime. Perhaps, but anyone who followed the aftermath of the Hariri assassination closely, by this time knows that there were unnecessary delays before the indictment was issued, and, more disturbing, that investigative shortcomings ensured that important avenues of exploration were not pursued.

The indictments are heavily based on analysis of the communications of the alleged perpetrators rather than on the testimony of witnesses. Thanks to a documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), we know that the second commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), Serge Brammertz, delayed telecommunications analysis until after this was undertaken by a Lebanese police officer, Wissam Eid.

Eid and his superior, Samir Shehadeh, were both the targets of assassination attempts – successful in the case of Eid. From my own conversations with former members of the UN investigation team and senior Lebanese officials who were closely involved in the investigative process, I heard that Brammertz had hardly progressed at all during his two years in office.

The most public statement casting doubt on Brammertz’s investigation came from his predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. In an interview that I conducted with him in Berlin for the Wall Street Journal at the end of Brammertz’s term in January 2008, Mehlis said, “I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward.”

Subsequent discussions appeared to confirm this view. One Lebanese judicial official told me that before leaving Beirut, Brammertz had told his Lebanese counterparts that there was not much new in his files, but that one more year would be needed to conclude his work. As the official pointed out, if Brammertz had so little in his files how could he be so explicit in setting a deadline for the investigation?

If that was not enough, the lengthy period that Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare, required to put together an indictment – three years rather than one – suggested that he was left with a very unsatisfactory dossier by his predecessor. Bellemare never criticized Brammertz publicly, but he could not have been happy.

Brammertz came at a key moment during the investigation. It was his work that was supposed to build on Mehlis’ investigation and firm up his strong suspicions and those of the initial UN investigator, Peter FitzGerald, that the Syrian regime was involved in the killing.

In the weeks after the assassination, FitzGerald had written a report that would lead to UNIIIC’s establishment. He noted, “[T]he Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon … [T]hey have severely failed to provide the citizens of Lebanon with an acceptable level of security [contributing] to the propagation of a culture of intimidation and impunity. The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.”

While FitzGerald shied away from directly accusing the Syrian regime for Hariri’s killing, he wrote that it was the result of a conspiracy requiring “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support.” In other words, the Syrians and their Lebanese partners could hardly have avoided noticing it. This was as close as FitzGerald came to linking Syria to the crime. As for Mehlis, he never concealed his belief that the regime was involved.

So, today when the indictments include only the names of Hezbollah members, it makes one wonder: What happened to the first line of investigation that led toward Damascus? It is inconceivable that Hariri could have been eliminated without a green light from the Syrian regime. That’s why it is probable that Brammertz simply shied away from the Syrian path, a conclusion that appears to be reinforced by the fact that he never formally took down a witness statement from President Bashar al-Assad, despite his declared intention to do so.

Brammertz didn’t do much investigating on the Syrian front, and only authorized telecommunications analysis near the end of his term, after the legwork had already been done by Wissam Eid. The first half of this incredible conclusion was confirmed to me by a former UNIIIC investigator; the second, by former investigators speaking to the CBC.

Brammertz must have been on to something, for despite having wasted two valuable years in Lebanon, he was promoted to become prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There are magistrates in Europe convinced that the UN rewarded him for his politically-safe idleness in Beirut.

It’s a relief after nine years to see the trial begin. But it’s difficult to identify very much that is encouraging in it. None of the suspects are in court; the individuals indicted, if guilty, are only a small part of a much larger conspiracy, most of whose members are unknown; the indictments don’t offer a clear motive; and many Lebanese have lost the interest they had in 2005 and 2006 to uncover the truth.

The trial will doubtless reveal information deeply embarrassing to the perpetrators. But it will not end impunity for political crimes. The danger today is that the Lebanese may await too much from an institution that was never able to meet their great expectations.    

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