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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Mehlis Mess

December 6, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

The Mehlis Mess

December 6, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24041

The investigation launched by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis - as mandated by the United Nations Security Council resolution - into the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, has collapsed. It can now be demonstrated that Mehlis was duped by two witnesses whose testimonies provided the bulk of his October 21 report that at the time seemed to confirm widely suspected Syrian complicity in Hariri's murder.

Doubts had been cast on the veracity of a key witness, identified as "Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik" in the Mehlis report, as early as September, when it transpired that he was a colorful con artist. Since then, Saddik was arrested in Paris as a possible source of disinformation, but his testimony was cited in the U.N. report nonetheless. The remaining certainty regarding Syrian culpability hinged solely on the man who became known in press jargon as "the masked witness"; first identified by a Lebanese satellite channel on November 23 as Hosam Taher Hosam: a 30 year-old Syrian Kurd, living in Lebanon. If Saddik's unreliability had frayed confidence in Mehlis's judgments, the emergence of this second witness led to the unraveling of the report's badly knit fabric.

New TV, the channel with the breaking story, is not known for its trustworthiness. It ran a story claiming that Hosam had first made contact with one of its producers some three weeks before Mehlis issued his report, claiming that he was the chief witness. He asserted that he had worked for Syrian intelligence directly under people like Assef Shawket, the Syrian president's brother-in-law, and Rustum Ghazaleh, the former Syrian "viceroy" over Lebanon. Both were fingered by Mehlis as top suspects in a draft that was leaked to the press before these references were expunged at the insistence of U.N. higher-ups. Hosam was bargaining for the rights of his story, and his phone calls were being taped furtively: "You need to know that 23 or 25 thousand dollars is a small amount. If I wanted to make a business out of this, you know Aljazeera or Alarabia would pay 200 or 300 thousand dollars," he told a contact at New TV. But what made his account credible was that Hosam had spoken of some of the information that ended-up verbatim in Mehlis's report even before its publication.

In the voice recordings, Hosam claims to have been debriefed by the FBI, who offered him money and American citizenship in return for information on Syria's secret weapons programs.

What happened next was even more puzzling: there was total silence among Lebanon's political and press elite on this topic. New TV's reporting was dismissed as sensational; they were accused of trying to pull an eleventh-hour stunt to discredit the Mehlis report. The thinking went: "Mehlis would never fall for this kind of nonsense." This eerie and enforced denial of Hosam's existence lasted until November 27, that is, when Hosam made it over the border to Syria and was showcased on the evening news for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Hosam declared that his testimony "against" his homeland was coached and paid for by Hariri's son, Saad, who had inherited his father's business empire and political mantle. In a colorful press conference the following day, Hosam cast himself as a patriot whose "donkey in the village is more dear to me than the new gleaming [car] given to me by Hariri."

I have been apprehensive about the dependability of the "evidence" used to incriminate the Syrian leadership for some time, and I first mentioned this in a column in late September. After the report was issued, I was skeptical of the witness - who since turned out to be Hosam - and said that he falls under the category of "too good to be true." Things just didn't add up: How could this witness be around in so many critical places, and claim to have witnessed so many incriminating circumstances, and then live to tell the tale to international investigators? I began thinking that something was wrong with Mr. Mehlis himself for not seeing through these cock-and-bull stories.

Furthermore, there was the stench of "coaching." How was it that the testimonies of Hosam and Saddik corroborated each other, if they were indeed both walk-in imposters hoping to cash in? Were they in cahoots? Or was there someone instructing them as to what to say to Mr. Mehlis? Were they allowed to cross paths after defecting into the arms of the U.N. investigation and thus have the chance to get their stories straight?

Mehlis is responding to such muffled critiques by attempts at bravado and saving face: "I have 500 other witnesses" he has been quoted as saying. He invited eight prominent anti-Syrian journalists who write for Lebanese and Arab newspapers to visit him at his secured compound, and - very revealing of his character - went out of his way to dispel rumors of Jewish parentage. Mr. Mehlis, apparently, had enjoyed the appellation of "Teutonic Fox," and his prickly pride wanted ever so desperately to hold on to some glamour. But the reality was that he was, in the very least, snookered by two second-rate guttersnipes, who may or may not have been coached by amateurs at play in the realm of intelligence. In an act that smells of retribution, Mr. Mehlis ordered the arrest of Hosam's Lebanese fiancee and his future father-in-law.

Nowadays, Mr. Mehlis wants to resign in a huff, and his self-promoting spin is that Kofi Annan is being too accommodating of the Syrian regime, and hence hampering the investigation. The other talking point is that his term is about to expire anyway. Mr. Mehlis must be fired and placed under investigation himself, along with the top echelon of his team. Their credulousness has worked to put Lebanon's fragile political balance in disarray and the Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Asad, has managed to emerge triumphant. If Hosam and Saddik were Syrian plants, as some have suggested, well, let's have that examined too. But the Mehlis investigation is not longer salvageable; it must be revamped and rebooted.

Mr. Mehlis is supposed to hand in a "final" report by December 15, as soon as he wraps up interrogating five key Syrian officials, including Ghazaleh, who are currently in Vienna. The American ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, has insisted that Mehlis stay at his job, and there is speculation that the German will rescind his resignation. This is a terrible mistake that follows an even bigger mistake: the Mehlis investigation should not be America's casus belli against Syria's dictatorship. Why is the Asad regime being held to account for the murder of a Lebanese gentleman, while its murder of thousands of Syrians is overlooked? There is plenty of "evidence" that can be cited about Syrian bad behavior in international circles as well as murderous tyranny at home if the Bush administration is serious about regime change in Damascus.

But Mr. Mehlis needs to go, and a closer look into why his investigation had been so easily misled needs to be launched. This may also be a good time to widen the list of suspects for Hariri's murder instead of just going with the hypothesis of a Syrian role. I would take a closer look on the technical evidence that was cited and that may give an indication of jihadist involvement in Hariri's murder.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

December 6, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >