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Lebanon - A year of unsuccessful investigation

Progress on local and international probes has been slow

After a short visit to Beirut, outgoing UN lead investigator Detlev Mehlis left Beirut Friday, after meeting with Lebanese magistrates and officials over the past week.

Mehlis had also met with Justice Minister Charles Rizk and paid condolences to the family of slain MP Gebran Tueni.

Tueni had been quoted in Mehlis' interim report after voluntarily providing his statement to the investigation team regarding the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

Mehlis is expected to return to Beirut by mid January with his successor.

With almost a year having passed since Hariri's murder, and no perpetrators yet apprehended, The Daily Star looks back at the progress of the international and local investigations carried out over the past 11 months.

Local investigations and two UN probes:

On February 14, 2005, Hariri's motorcade was targeted by a massive explosion, which experts say involved some 350 kilograms of explosives, claiming the lives of 20 people, including former Economy Minister Basil Fleihan.

The UN Security Council condemned the "terrorist crime," and appointed an interim UN delegation to investigate the matter under the stewardship of Ireland's Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald.

Lebanon, which had already begun an investigation into the attack, announced it would cooperate with any UN probe as long as it respected Lebanese sovereignty.

By March 15, Fitzgerald's delegation had completed its investigations. The group's report to the Security Council pointed a finger at a "Syrian-Lebanese intelligence apparatus," and included threats made by Syrian President Bashar Assad that he would destroy Lebanon and the Hariri family unless the then-premier supported an extension of President Emile Lahoud's mandate.

Fitzgerald also concluded Lebanon's own investigations "contained serious flaws."

Furthermore, the UN delegation noted that asphalt on the outer edges of the crater caused by the blast was fractured and raised, a possible indication that the bomb could have been located underground.

On April 7, and based on the Fitzgerald report, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1595, which called for the creation of a broader international investigation into Hariri's death. German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis was selected to head the new commission, and instructed to report to Secretary General Kofi Annan within three months.

Arriving four months after the crime, and with previous investigations and the elements having corrupted the crime scene, Mehlis' probe came to conclusions contradictory to those of Fitzgerald, as it found a "99 percent" probability that the explosion had been detonated "above ground," enhancing the theory of a suicide bomber.

Accusations, witnesses and suspects:

Within moments of Hariri's assassination, many had already formed their own conclusions of who was behind the attack. Some, including most of Lebanon's opposition members, accused Syria of having a hand in the assassination, a charge Damascus furiously denied.

A previously unknown Islamist group calling itself "Jund al-Sham" quickly claimed responsibility for the murder. Damascus announced a few months later it had apprehended some of the organization's members.

Mehlis' investigation, which included statements from some 500 witnesses, tens of suspects and a large amount of physical evidence from the blast site, concluded the crime couldn't have happened without the knowledge and consent of the Syrian intelligence apparatus present in Lebanon at that time.

Mehlis' unedited interim report to the UN was leaked on October 27. It read: "It would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination ... could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranking Syrian security officials."

Based on his findings, Mehlis suggested Lebanon arrest four of its former security chiefs for suspected links to the crime.

The officers were: Jamil Sayyed, Mustafa Hamdan, Raymond Azar and Ali Hajj, the former heads of General Security, the Presidential Guard, Army Intelligence and Internal Security, respectively.

On September 1, the four security chiefs were formally charged by Lebanon's Chief Investigating Magistrate Said Mirza "with murder, attempted murder and carrying out a terrorist act."

Based on complaints from Mehlis of a lack of cooperation in his investigation, the Security Council issued Resolution 1636 on October 31, which demanded Syria cooperate fully with the UN probe, or face the threat of "further action."

The investigation suffered a minor scandal in November when a key witness in Mehlis' report, whom had featured prominently in the report and provided information that lead to the four arrests, fled to Syria and publicly confessed to having lied to the UN investigators.

The infamous "masked Syrian witness," Houssam Taher Houssam, directed allegations of bribery and falsifying evidence against a number of Lebanese politicians and officials involved with the UN investigation.

Houssam's recantation pushed Syrian officials to demand a revision of the UN probe's report published on October 27, which once more implicated Syria in the murder.

Another Syrian witness, Mohammad Siddiq, who later became a suspect, was also proven to have lied to the UN probe. He is currently being detained by France.

Some nine other Lebanese suspects were also arrested in November, including mobile phone-line vendors suspected of selling lines to the murder's perpetrators and hiding the matter from the authorities. They were arrested under the same charges as the four former security chiefs.

In his final report submitted to the UN three weeks ago, Mehlis considered five Syrians interrogated in Vienna in early December as additional "suspects." The names of the five Syrian officials were never made public, but persistent rumors claimed that Rustom Ghazali, the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, was one of those questioned.

Probe's mandate and Mehlis' successor:

The UN probe's mandate has been extended twice to date; the first time in late September for an additional three months, and the second time on December 15 for an additional six months.

Mehlis, who said he would not stay on as head of the UN probe, said that among the various reasons for his quitting the post were the death threats that he had received.

Belgian Magistrate Serge Brammertz, currently deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, is expected to be appointed as the new lead investigator on January 11, 2006, according to UN diplomats.

Beirut,01 02 2006
Leila Hatoum
The Daily Star
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