Analysis: U.N.: Syria slows Hariri probe

By LAUREN MACK  |  Dec. 13, 2005 at 6:17 PM
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UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- The U.N. commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri asked the Security Council to let it continue despite recent setbacks.

The council reviewed the investigative report Tuesday by Detlev Mehlis, head of the International Independent Investigation Commission which is investigating Hariri's assassination.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan remained optimistic the investigation would continue despite repeated delays by Syria and Mehlis stepping down when his mandated term as head of the case expires Dec. 15.

"The commission's relation with the Syrian authorities has been marked by conflicting signals," Mehlis told the Security Council. "This has caused confusion and delays."

The commission began an investigation in spring after Hariri and 22 others were killed when a Mitsubishi truck carrying explosives exploded near Hariri's motorcade in Beirut Feb. 14.

The U.N. investigation was extended after the commission's first report was issued in October.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniori, in a letter to the United Nations which Annan has yet to receive, urged for an expansion of the investigation to include six other assassinations including the killing of Gibran Tueni, a Lebanese politician and journalist killed in a bombing Monday in Beirut.

Before the deadly attack, Hariri had positioned himself closer to the opposition. Hariri's assassination 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. The troops withdrew in April.

After his death, Hariri's political allies and family openly accused Syria and its Lebanese allies of killing the former leader.

Syria has denied any involvement in the slaying.

A Syrian Judicial Commission was set up to investigate the assassination but the U.N. commission said that investigation cannot substitute for UNIIIC's work.

Syria has agreed to cooperate in the U.N.'s investigation though it has caused numerous delays and meddled in the investigation, Mehlis said.

"It remains to be seen if a substantive law enforcement investigation will be carried out to its full extent," said the U.N. commission's report. "It is only the actual and continuous responsiveness of the Syrian authorities that will remove any doubts about Syrian substantive movement in the case."

The United States agrees with the U.N. commission that Syria could be more helpful in the investigation.

"I think Syria's cooperation has been grudging at best. I think they've tried the lowest common denominator approach to see what they can get away with," said John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. "This really is obstruction of justice on their part."

Syria said Tuesday it "cooperated fully with the investigation" and accused the commission of previously leaking parts of the investigation.

According to the International Press Institute, there have been at least 14 bomb attacks in Beirut since the Hariri's assassination in February. UNIIIC has not included these attacks in its investigation.

The report details progress made in the investigation and in the commission's partnership with Lebanese authorities.

It also includes its work with difficult Syrian authorities.

"Those efforts have only recently begun to bear fruit after delays which had an impact on the commission's ability to effectively carry out its work," said Annan in a letter to Security Council President Emyr Jones Parry.

Throughout the investigation, the commission has called on Syrian authorities "to cooperate fully and unconditionally with the commission and to detain any Syrian officials or nationals considered as suspects by the commission," said the report.

The commission has heard from more than 500 witnesses, interviewed and obtained the statements of 19 suspects, and compiled 37,000 pages of documents.

"One of the specific areas of focus is information related to the planning of the assassination," said the report. The suspects include four high-level Lebanese security and intelligence officials and six Syrian officials. Lebanese legal procedures apply to both sets of suspects, said the report.

The report details a litany of delays by the Syrian government which have slowed and hampered the investigation.

It pointed to the six Syrian officials the commission identified as suspects. The report said "procedural maneuvering and sometimes contradictory feedback" delayed the eventual questioning of five of the officials at the U.N. office in Vienna Dec. 5 and 7. The Syrians questioned gave DNA samples and sworn statements.

The sixth suspect's interview was postponed.

"Statements made by two of the suspects indicated that all Syrian intelligence documents concerning Lebanon had been burned," said the report. This information was confirmed in a Dec. 8 letter to the commission written by Judge Ghada Murad, head of the Syrian Special Investigation Commission which said: "No material regarding the assassination of Mr. Hariri had been found in Syrian Intelligence archives."

Syrian authorities have allegedly threatened witnesses too.

Since the identity of confidential source, Hussam Taher Hussam, has been disclosed, he has withdrawn his testimony which implicated high-level Syrian officials in the assassination.

"Mr. Hussam is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities, raising serious questions about whether the Syrian Judicial Commission is committed to conducting an independent, transparent and professional investigation into the crime," said the report.

Hussam's testimony matched a similar account of the assassination he relayed to close friends and the commission has received "credible information" that his testimony is true.

Annan is confident the recant will not setback the investigation.

"Mehlis has made it clear that the witness that has recounted his evidence is not a principal one and that it does not affect his main findings," said Annan.

The report mentions new witnesses including one whose statement strengthens the evidence against the currently held Lebanese and Syrian suspects. The witness's "detailed information points directly at perpetrators, sponsors and organizers of an organized operation aiming at killing Hariri."

The information included recruitment of special agents by Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services, handling of improvised explosives, a pattern of threats against targeted individuals and planning of other criminal activities, said the report.

The commission believes there were political and personal motives, which have been corroborated by testimony, to kill Hariri.

"Fraud, corruption and money laundering could also have been motives for individuals to participate in the operation that ended with the assassination of Hariri," said the report.

Mehlis predicts the investigation may take another year or two if Syria continues its piecemeal cooperation. The German prosecutor's successor has not been named though Annan assured a replacement would be found in the next week or two.

"It's a high pressure job, high profile, and a tough situation, but I'm sure I'll find someone to do it," said Annan. The replacement would hold the post for at least six months.

Annan said the investigation would continue uninterrupted and Mehlis would continue to be involved.

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