13 December 2005 Latest evidence reinforces preliminary findings of both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, according to a new United Nations report citing burned Syrian documents, pressure on a witness to recant and the need for Damascus to be more forthcoming.
“However, it is worth noting that, despite their reluctance and procrastination, the Syrian authorities did make available for questioning the five Syrian officials that the Commission had summoned,” the head of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) Detlev Mehlis said in his report to the Security Council, confirming 19 unidentified suspects and recommending a six-month extension for UNIIIC.
“As this is the beginning of a long-awaited process, it is up to the Syrian authorities to be more forthcoming in order to make headway in a process that will be most probably a long one if it is to be judged against the pace of progress to date. Until now, the Commission has made steady progress on the Lebanese track. It remains to be matched on the Syrian track.”
Following the presentation of an earlier report in October, the Council called on Syria to detain Syrian suspects already identified UNIIIC and clarify all unresolved issues, holding out the possibility of “further action” in the case of non-compliance.
Mr. Hariri’s assassination on 14 February, in which 22 other people were also killed when his car was blown up, led to renewed calls for the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents who had been in Lebanon since the early stages of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. In April, the UN reported that troops were withdrawn.
The latest report also deals with witness Hussam Taher Hussam, who has been shown on Syrian television recanting testimony he had previously given. UNIIIC said it had received “credible information” that Syrian officials had arrested and threatened some of Mr. Hussam’s close relatives in Syria.
“Preliminary investigation leads to a conclusion that Mr. Hussam is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities,” the report said, calling this “an attempt to hinder the investigation internally and procedurally.”
Two of the five Syrian suspects whom UNIIIC questioned indicated that all Syrian intelligence documents concerning Lebanon had been burned, according to the report.
A statement by a new witness who has been assessed to be credible and whose information is deemed reliable “strengthens the evidence confirmed to date against the Lebanese officers in custody, as well as high-ranked Syrian officers,” the report noted.
“The detailed information points directly at perpetrators, sponsors and organizers of an organized operation aiming to kill Mr. Hariri, including the recruitment of special agents by the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services, handling of improvised explosive devices, a pattern of threats against targeted individuals, and planning of other criminal activities,” it added.
The report stressed that the next steps to be followed in the investigation require “at all times the full and unconditional co-operation of the Syrian authorities.”
Noting that substantive lines of enquiry are far from being completed “and given the slow pace with which the Syrian authorities are beginning to discharge their commitments to the Council,” it recommended that UNIIIC be extended for a minimum of six months.
In the most recent two-month period, 37,000 pages of documents were entered into the case file. With its support team, the Commission totals 93 personnel.
At a later news conference, Mr. Mehlis was questioned about the treatment of the Syrian witnesses.
He said he personally assured the Syrian authorities that Syrian suspects would be given the same rights that they would be given in their own country. He also had to take into consideration that under the enabling Security Council resolution the Lebanese case was governed by Lebanese law and so they were also given rights under Lebanese law.
The Lebanese code of criminal procedure does not allow a suspect during a police investigation to have a lawyer present, Mr. Mehlis said, but “we thought this would not be appropriate” so they agreed that the witnesses would be allowed two lawyers of their choice and an interpreter. “At that time there were no complaints,” he added.