Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hariri tribunal proves the long road to justice is an empty one

When the United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination began in 2005, I, like many others, wanted to believe it would end impunity for such crimes. Nine years later, with the trial of suspects having begun in The Hague, I realise this expectation was naive.

Having written about the subject during much of that time, and after interviewing many of the participants, I discovered how a UN project of this magnitude could become a labyrinth of conflicting motivations, ambitions and personal and political agendas, often upheld by a very misleading, tendentious interpretation of what was going on.

Lost in this mishmash were Lebanon’s victims of assassination, transformed into that most dismal of appellations: martyrs. While I did not know Hariri, Bassel Fuleihan, who was next to the former prime minister when he was killed, was a colleague at university. The journalist Samir Kassir, killed near my apartment two months later, was a friend. And Mohammed Chatah, who was assassinated last December, was someone I knew relatively well and respected greatly.

In retrospect, none would have imagined that their death could change much in Lebanon. And yet for years, at every new elimination, the same refrain could be heard: that justice would come, and that the guilty would be brought to trial.

The Hariri assassination trial has started. Not surprisingly, none of the accused, all allegedly members of Hizbollah, are in the dock. They are to be tried in absentia on the basis of evidence that, while compelling, in fact only covers a narrow part of the crime.

Hariri was the victim of a vast conspiracy, as UN investigators concluded early on, but today only five suspects, involved at the operational level, have been indicted. All are Lebanese, even though it is inconceivable that the former prime minister could have been eliminated without a green light from the Syrian leadership.

More troubling is the fact that the prosecution has not outlined a motive for the assassination, which the defence has already tried to exploit. And yet that was not always true. In his opening report, the first commissioner of the UN investigation, the German Detlev Mehlis, provided a motive: that Hariri was killed for political reasons, as it was well-known in Lebanon that he was likely to challenge and defeat Syria’s candidates in the summer 2005 elections.

Mr Mehlis has been much maligned since he left his position in late 2005. The criticism, however, has been almost entirely politically motivated, because early on he concluded that there was Syrian and Lebanese intelligence involvement in the crime. In this he repeated what many Lebanese knew to be true, given the then extensive nature of Syrian control over Lebanon and its security.

“Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge,” Mr Mehlis had written in his report.

To the UN, Mr Mehlis was a headache. When he began his assignment, he later told me in an interview, UN secretary general Kofi Annan had made it clear “that he did not want another trouble spot”. Mr Mehlis didn’t oblige. He sought to take down President Bashar Al Assad’s witness statement, setting up a confrontation with Syrian officials that pushed the Security Council to back Mr Mehlis.

However, Mr Al Assad’s allies in the council could not have been pleased. They had no choice but to defend a man they had approved, but Mr Mehlis was stubborn. Indeed, after he was told by the UN that, for security reasons, he could no longer conduct his investigation from inside Lebanon in 2006, the German government said this would be unacceptable and he left his post.

Two questions arise here. Were the Germans looking for any opening to remove Mr Mehlis, because he was damaging their relationship with Syria? And second, if the UN admitted that it could not protect the commissioner in Lebanon, then who precisely were they worried might try to kill him? The answer pointed in only one direction.

Far more palatable to the UN was Mr Mehlis’s successor, the Belgian Serge Brammertz. Perhaps that’s because Mr Brammertz progressed very little in his investigation.

In my interviews with former investigators who had worked with the Belgian, as well as with senior Lebanese judicial officials who dealt with him, the story was the same: Mr Brammertz had wasted time, even delaying a key aspect of the investigation, namely analysis of telecommunications data that is the basis of the present indictment.

This was later echoed in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report, based on interviews with former investigators. One who was equally unimpressed with the investigation was Mr Mehlis, who went on the record with me to cast doubt on his successor’s efforts.

Mr Brammertz’s promotion to the position of prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia appeared to show that the UN was happy with his poor performance.

But it also showed that the momentum that initially led to the UN investigation had been lost. Mr Brammertz’s work not only was questionable, but the UN did not seem to want it otherwise. His successor would take three more years to issue an indictment, showing how empty was the Belgian’s dossier. Meanwhile, many more people were assassinated in Lebanon, ridiculing the end-of-impunity claim.

Hariri’s killing was an eminently political crime, so it was no surprise that politics would affect the investigation, even partly undermine it. Yet we should have predicted this nine years ago, amid all the idle talk that the killings in Lebanon would end.

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