Syria is fighting back hard against the UN inquiry into the killing of a Lebanese politician, touting a witness who now says his testimony against Syrian officials was false. But some in Lebanon say Syria is just manoeuvring to discredit an investigation that could lead to its doorstep.
Syria and its allies in Lebanon say the recanting witness is a blow to the inquiry’s credibility, and Damascus has put him on state television three times in four days – including today – to tell his story.
Husam Taher Husam boldly claimed he lied to investigators about Syria’s involvement in the February 14 bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and alleged he had been offered money by the Hariri family and Lebanese officials to frame Damascus, accusations flatly rejected in Beirut.
But Syria’s Lebanese opponents suspect Damascus planted Husam to undermine the UN commission and its lead investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.
“Most likely from the start he had a certain plan to say what he said in order to mislead the investigation,” Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan Sabei, who met Husam before he testified before the commission, told Voice of Lebanon radio today.
Husam’s sudden appearance came as investigators prepare to question five senior Syrian officials implicated in the probe. The questioning is due to take place in Vienna. The timing has not been announced, though the Syrians are not expected to arrive there until next week, an Austrian Interior Ministry official said today.
Last month’s UN interim report said Syria – which controlled Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s assassination – must have known about and may have been involved in the plot to kill him. Mehlis has confirmed that Husam was a witness in his probe but has not commented on the impact of his recantment. In a statement, Mehlis denied the commission made any offers to Husam but did not refute his allegations outright.
Syria denies any role in Hariri’s death, and officials have rejected the interim report, accusing Hariri’s son, Saad, and his political allies in Lebanon of seeking to frame their country with the backing of the US. After Husam’s claim, the Syrian judicial committee conducting its own investigation said Husam’s revelations dealt a “knockout blow” to the Mehlis report.
Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law who is campaigning to be Lebanon’s next president, called Husam’s appearance a “childish spoof” and said he didn’t believe it would have much practical effect on Mehlis’ inquiry.
“My sense is that they (investigators) didn’t take his initial testimony seriously,” he said.
The commission – which began its work in June and could extend it beyond a December 15 deadline – has faced other problems.
Another witness, Syrian Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq, was arrested in France after UN investigators accused him of lying in an attempt to mislead the probe. Police have said Husam, a Syrian barber and self-proclaimed intelligence operative, has a criminal record, but his testimony was taken anyway.
A man who was questioned over the sale of cellular phone chips used by those allegedly involved in Hariri’s bombing was found dead last week on a mountain road in what was ruled as a car accident, a version that many in Lebanon did not take seriously.
One of four pro-Syrian security generals charged with involvement in the murder, former military intelligence chief Raymond Azar, was rushed from jail to hospital with heart problems today.
A statement issued by the Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces tonight said Azar was in “a stable condition” at the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Ghazi Kenaan, the Syrian interior minister who ran Lebanon for two decades, died in his office in Damascus about a month after being interviewed by the commission. Syrian officials declared it a suicide, but some in Lebanon believe he was killed.
Lebanese politicians are divided, as is the case on most Syria-related issues, along pro- and anti-Syrian lines.
Walid Jumblatt, who has led the campaign to drive Syria out of Lebanon, ridiculed the Husam TV appearances as a “laughable farce” carried out by Syrian intelligence with the aim of undermining Mehlis’ credibility before the Vienna questioning.
But Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian ex-Cabinet minister and a Druse rival of Jumblatt, said that regardless of Husam’s motives, “the investigation has entered a major crisis and the commission has fallen victim to a trick.”