Chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis is
withdrawing from the investigation, but not before submitting a second
report on Dec. 10, 2005, that sought to salvage the tattered reputation
of his earlier report that had relied heavily on two dubious witnesses
to implicate senior officials of the Syrian government.
One of those witnesses – Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad
Said Saddik – was later identified by the German newsmagazine Der
Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from
his Hariri testimony.
The other, Hussam Taher Hussam, recanted his
testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis
investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million
by Lebanese officials.
In his follow-up report, Mehlis countered by
asserting that Hussam’s recantation was coerced by Syrian authorities
who allegedly threatened Hussam’s family. But the conflicting
accusations already had given the investigation the feel of “a fictional
spy thriller,” as the New York Times noted. [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]
The pursuit of truth has been further confused by
the various political agendas swirling around the case.
The Bush administration has sought to use the
Hariri investigation to press for regime change in Syria; anti-Syrian
Lebanese politicians have seized on the report to isolate Syrian
sympathizers in Lebanon; and Syrian leaders have complained that they’re
being framed both by internal and external enemies who want to
destabilize the government.
There is also the complex question of motive.
Hariri, a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, had
many enemies who might have wanted him dead, either for his business or
his political dealings.
After the Feb. 14 attack, a videotape was delivered
to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass,
claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing. According to the video,
Hariri was targeted by Islamic militants because of his work as “the
agent of the infidels” in Saudi Arabia.
The first U.N. report relied on the two
now-discredited witnesses – Saddik and Hussam – to dismiss the videotape
as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from
But it is true that Hariri offended Syrian
authorities by opposing the continued tenure of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian
Syria’s former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam
said Syrian President Bashar Assad had an angry confrontation with
Hariri several months before the assassination, though Khaddam – now in
exile – stopped short of implicating Assad in Hariri’s murder. [NYT,
Jan. 3, 2006]
Amid the fog of the region’s convoluted
geopolitics, one of the few bright spots in the Hariri probe has been
progress in the forensic investigation – particularly the mystery of the
white Mitsubishi Canter Van that was seen on a security camera rolling
toward Hariri’s motorcade immediately before the explosion.
The first U.N. report described the van as the
vehicle that delivered the bomb. Investigators even identified the
precise vehicle from numbers found in the debris, including a piece of
the engine block.
The investigation learned that the van had been
stolen in Japan four months earlier, but the report showed little effort
to investigate who might have stolen the vehicle and how it got from
Japan to Lebanon.
After the first report was released in October, I
wrote an article suggesting that possibly the most promising hope for
cracking the case was to pursue more aggressively the forensic leads,
particularly who last possessed the van. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
The second U.N. report does reveal some progress on
this front. Japanese police have concluded that the van likely was
shipped, either in whole or in parts, to the United Arab Emirates, a
Persian Gulf state known as a center for contraband in the Arab world.
U.N. investigators also have sought help from “UAE
authorities to trace the movements of this vehicle, including reviewing
shipping documents from the UAE and, with the assistance of the UAE
authorities, attempting to locate and interview the consignees of the
container in which the vehicle or its parts is believed to have been
shipped,” the report said.
On the Lebanon end, however, security officials
said they had no record of the identification numbers from the van’s
engine or chassis on any vehicle registered in Lebanon.
So it may be hard – or even impossible – to
determine who took possession of the vehicle after it left the UAE and
then presumably passed by ship through the Suez Canal to a port on the
Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly would help the investigation to know
where the vehicle landed and who picked it up.
“This line of enquiry remains in its early stages,”
the report said.
As the U.N. probe grinds on and a new investigator
is chosen to replace Mehlis, the press attention will likely remain
focused on the pressure brought to bear on Syrian authorities to get
them to cooperate more fully.
But the forensic evidence – both following the
van’s trail and possibly tracking the source of the explosives – could
offer the best hope of finally learning the truth and possibly bringing
Hariri’s killers to justice.