Syria comes under pressure as calls grow for Hariri tribunal

International pressure on the Syrian government is expected to be stepped up on December 15, when UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis delivers his report on the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  December 11, 2005

International pressure on the Syrian government is expected to be stepped up on December 15, when UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis delivers his report on the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. As Arabian Business went to press, the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat reported that Mehlis, who will quit after he submits his report, is likely to ask Damascus to detain General Rustom Ghazali, the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and his deputy Jamea Jamea. Both have been questioned over the assassination at the UN office in Vienna, along with three other Syrian security officials. The newspaper said the request to sequester the individuals would take place prior to Mehlis’ delivery of his report to UN secretary general Kofi Annan on December 10 and the UN Security Council on December 15, because there was “enough evidence that implicates their involvement in the assassination” of Hariri. Syria granted the Syrian officers diplomatic passports prior to their trip to Vienna and appointed two lawyers for each — one Syrian and the other foreign. Meanwhile, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, who unsuccessfully tried to convince Mehlis to prolong his mandate and continue leading the investigation for an additional six to seven months, managed to gather more support for the establishment of an international tribunal to try those involved in the killing of Hariri. Although the Shiite groups of Hezbollah and Amal walked out of parliament a few weeks ago when the issue of a tribunal was about to be tabled, Siniora secured the blessing of former army general Michel Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, to move forward with calls for the tribunal. “We are in agreement that setting up an international tribunal is important, and we can discuss the details later,” the Lebanese premier said, adding that the tribunal “will spare the country many problems”. The son of the former Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, who was travelling in the Gulf last week, also insisted that the creation of an international court was not open to compromise. Securing Aoun is expected strengthen the ability of those in the incumbent government who want to proceed with a tribunal to secure enough votes when the issue is put to a debate. Amal and Hezbollah, both of which are pro-Syrian, have made it clear they would go as far as resigning from the present government should calls for a tribunal go ahead. The Syrians, for their part, have questioned the credibility of the Mehlis report, in light of what they say is damaging testimony by the ‘masked witness’ Husam Taher Husam, who claims he gave false testimony to the Mehlis investigating team because he was tortured and threatened. Husam, who has lambasted the UN investigating team on Syrian television, claimed he was instructed to question Lebanon’s former general security chief Jamil Al Sayed, who is currently under arrest along with three other security bosses. He also claimed that Saad Hariri offered him US$1.3 million in exchange for testimony against Syrian officials. Though the allegations were vehemently denied by Hariri, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad said in an interview with France 3 TV that the Mehlis report was dubious given that Husam recanted his testimony. “From the beginning of the investigation, five witnesses appeared and provided false information. Recently a Syrian witness confessed that he was forced to give a statement that supports one viewpoint in this investigation. This makes us feel worried over where this investigation is heading. That is why what we expect, in the first place, is to see a professional interrogation and at the same time to see the investigation commission reconsider past mistakes in order to arrive at a just and objective report that indeed leads to uncovering the reasons behind the crime that claimed the life of [former] prime minister Al-Hariri,” Assad told the French station. “We are certain of our innocence. There is no evidence that Syria is involved. There is no criminal evidence; and Syria has no interest in that crime, nor does it have a history of similar actions.” The Syrian president said a conspiracy had been created by superpowers to hurt Syria: “Resolution 1636, which is related to the investigation, was passed on the basis of a report, which the commission says, is incomplete. It threatens Syria of sanctions in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which is only used when there is a threat to international security. France and the United States took part in passing both resolutions. If we do not call this a plot or a conspiracy, do we call it an act of charity for instance?”

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