A man has claimed on Syrian state TV that he was bribed to accuse top Syrian officials of the murder of Rafik Hariri in his testimony to the UN commission into the former Lebanese premier’s assassination.
Husam Taher Husam, a former conscript in the Syrian army, alleged in a 75-minute interview last night that Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered Hariri, met him several months ago and offered him $1.3m (€1.1m) to testify against top Syrian officials.
Saad Hariri was in Argentina today, but his aide Hani Hammoud dismissed the allegation, saying Saad had never met the “fictitious personality” Husam.
“It is a desperate attempt by desperate people to mislead the investigation and public opinion,” Hammoud said on the Hariri family’s Future TV channel.
The spokesman for the Syrian inquiry into Hariri’s murder, Ibrahim Daraji, said that if Husam was the unidentified key witness quoted in the UN commission’s interim report, then the United Nations’ case “has completely collapsed”.
Daraji spoke at a press conference in Damascus at which Husam reiterated the allegations he had made on Syrian television.
The UN commission rarely responds to media reports about the investigation.
Husam said that people in Lebanon told him what to say when he gave evidence to the UN commission, in particular that he was “close to” Brig. Gen. Assef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian military intelligence and brother-in-law of Syria’s president, who was named in the commission’s interim report last month.
“But I’ve never seen him in my whole life,” Husam said of Shawkat in the television interview.
Asked to identify the Lebanese who had influenced his testimony, Husam told the new conference with Daraji that it was Saad Hariri and Lebanon’s Interior Ministry, which is headed by Hassan Sabei, a Hariri ally.
Husam’s allegations came days before five senior Syrian officials were due to appear before the UN commission in Vienna. The officials, who have not been named either by the commission or Syria, will be questioned in the UN headquarters in the Austrian capital as part of an agreement reached after more than two weeks of negotiations over where and how their evidence would be taken.
In its interim report, the commission implicated the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others on February 14. Lebanon welcomed the report, but Syria rejected it as politicised and unfounded on evidence. Syrian officials have for weeks tried to discredit the UN investigation as biased against Syria.
Husam’s name has previously appeared in Lebanese news reports that said he gave evidence to the commission while wearing a hood to conceal his identity from suspects. The interim report does not mention any hooded witness, but it refers to significant testimony from an unidentified Syrian witness.
Husam said his Lebanese contacts told him to say Syrian President Bashar Assad had threatened the late Hariri. He said he refused to do this as he did not know whether such a threat was made.
The interim report refers to the alleged threat but it quotes several people who spoke to Hariri, including his son and close political allies, shortly after he met Assad in August 2004.
At the news conference, Husam said he was offered money by Hariri on two separate occasions and at the Interior Ministry. He added he did not think that the UN commission knew about this.
“I do not believe they were aware,” he said.
Husam, who claimed to have lived in Lebanon and worked for Syrian intelligence, said UN officials wanted him to go to Vienna to testify against the Syrian officials. He said he was told to prepare to travel to Austria this week.
Instead, he said, he drove around Lebanon and when he got to the Syrian border, he abandoned his car and took a taxi to Damascus yesterday.
Previously, another Syrian, Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq, gave evidence to the commission but was later discredited. At the commission’s recommendation, he was arrested in October in France, where he is being held as a suspect in the murder.
Hariri’s assassination, which many Lebanese blame on Syria, was the catalyst for mass anti-Syrian street protests and intensified international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon, ending nearly three decades of domination.