Friday, May 8, 2015

Trial and errors - The UN must assess the investigation of Rafik Hariri’s killing

As I listened to the prosecution’s questioning of Walid Jumblatt this week before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, several thoughts came to mind. All were related to the quality of the United Nations investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, and why it requires a critical assessment by the world body.

The first thought was, with all the information available showing the profound tensions between Hariri and the Syrian regime, why did the United Nations investigative team under its second commissioner, Serge Brammertz, fail to actively pursue an inquiry into possible Syrian involvement in his killing?

The recordings that Hariri made of his interactions with Syrian officials, not to mention the testimony of witnesses pointing to growing Syrian animosity toward the former prime minister, certainly imposed such an inquiry. This despite the fact that Brammertz’s predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, had focused on a Syrian motive for the crime, and had even interviewed several Syrian intelligence chiefs in Vienna.

In light of those interviews, Mehlis, as he later informed me, had requested that Brammertz arrest Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon. The Belgian commissioner had ignored this.

During his term, Mehlis had also entered into a standoff with the Syrian regime by requesting to take down the witness statement of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrians refused, and Mehlis had gained support from the UN Security Council, through Resolution 1636, requiring that Syria cooperate with his investigation. When I first met Mehlis a few weeks after that decision he stated, “The conditions we have are almost perfect. It makes our work easier. We are very happy.”

He was particularly happy in that he had tightened the legal framework for the investigation, creating a path for Brammertz to dig further into the potential implication of Syria. Instead, the Belgian commissioner came in and did nothing. As one investigator who served under the first two commissioners told me: “Not much investigating was done” under Brammertz.

In fact, Brammertz avoided conducting one of the most obvious and necessary of tasks, namely taking down Assad’s witness statement after the Security Council had backed up the UN investigation. The commissioner traveled to Damascus and met with Assad, but he never took down a formal statement. With the focus of the trial now shifting to Syria, that there are no statements by Assad to eventually place against what is being said against him in court is inexcusable.

Brammertz was also criticized because of his behavior with respect to the telecommunications analysis surrounding the Hariri assassination. This was brought to light by a hard-hitting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 2010.

The CBC affirmed that the UN investigative commission had delayed telecoms analysis of its own and had misplaced a report by a Lebanese investigator, Wissam Eid, identifying the cellular calls of those participating in the assassination. Eid’s conclusions were later confirmed by investigators brought in by the commission and these formed the basis of the initial indictment of five Hezbollah members.

The merits of the CBC report notwithstanding, the scandal was really elsewhere. Why was Eid conducting the most sensitive facet of the investigation in the first place? That was the duty of the UN investigative commission itself. Indeed, it should have been an absolute priority for Brammertz and his team.

At the time, Brammertz had tightly sealed his investigation, limiting the information handed to the Lebanese side, so as to prevent leaks. Therefore, one can only conclude that either he was negligent in his duties, or far more damagingly, that he pushed the telecommunications analysis onto the Lebanese, before he himself initiated telecoms analysis over a year later—in October 2007, according to the CBC documentary—when the UN commission asked a British company, FTS, to do so.

If this interpretation is correct, Brammertz is guilty of having purposely postponed looking at one of the most vital aspects of the Hariri assassination. But the careerist in him must have sensed the mood at the UN well, for when he left office in 2008 he was rewarded with a plum posting as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Brammertz’s refusal to go to the heart of the investigation had implications for the initial indictment prepared by Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare. Brammertz was instrumental in appointing Bellemare, and one can understand why. The Canadian judge never called into question his predecessor’s work, though the fact that he took three years to put together an indictment shows how little Brammertz had left him in his files.

And what an indictment. Bellemare’s work was as shoddy as Brammertz’s was dishonest. The Canadian offered no motive for why Hariri had been eliminated, presenting the defense with a golden opportunity to discredit his case. Not surprisingly, when his successor Norman Farrell took over as prosecutor, he was scornful of Bellemare’s efforts. Searching for a motive, he went back to the original hypothesis of Syrian involvement, and has concentrated on that with witnesses in recent months.

That is what has disturbed the Syrian regime. As Farrell has zeroed in on a Syrian reason for killing Hariri, even revealing a recording of a conversation between Hariri and Ghazaleh, the leadership in Damascus must have expected that Ghazaleh would be called in as a witness, even arrested. By blocking his appearance in court, the Syrians would have appeared guilty. By accepting it, there was a risk Ghazaleh would talk. That is why the best solution may have been to have Ghazaleh liquidated.

But when will someone talk about Brammertz’s actions, and denounce Bellemare’s indictment for the incompetent document that it is? The credibility of a UN legal process was undermined by a Belgian judge who remains on the UN payroll and a Canadian judge who was always in over his head. But no one wants to rock the boat. The UN ignores this at its own peril.

No comments: