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In New Brammertz Report, the U.N. Hariri Investigation Goes Backwards

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- One looks in vain for names in the 22-page report. Last week, Special Investigator Serge Brammertz submitted the ninth U.N. report on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. But hopes that the 45-year-old Belgian prosecutor would name suspects went unfulfilled. Invoking the confidentiality of the investigations, for the seventh time since assuming his responsibilities in January 2006, Brammertz declined to identify the possible perpetrators of the crime.

Brammertz's predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, had proceeded otherwise. In the first report of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) in October 2005, the prosecutor from Berlin leveled serious charges against Syria, which two months after the murder of Hariri ended its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Brammertz's seventh report for the commission will also be his last: In the New Year he will be replacing Carla Del Ponte as chief prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In addition to the assassination of Hariri, Brammertz has also investigated a series of other murders. The fact that he has again failed to name suspects has provoked dissatisfaction both in Lebanon and beyond. The murders, after all, have not only burdened the relationship between Damascus and Beirut, but also render more difficult the attempted rapprochement between Syria and other Arab states that was on view at the Middle East conference in Annapolis last week.

"It is time for the Lebanese finally to learn names," member of parliament Mosbah Ahdab demanded. Similarly, the independent presidential candidate Chibli Mallat recently called on Brammertz to disclose whether he has found that "the Syrian leadership and its Lebanese allies" are responsible for the Hariri assassination. Michael Young, an editor at the English-language Beirut daily the Daily Star, suspects that there are political reasons for Brammertz's reserve. "Why Brammertz agreed this month to become prosecutor of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when he should have prosecuted the case he has spent two years investigating may remain a mystery. However, it does make you wonder what the Belgian is all about."

"He has never mentioned specific states or individuals," Young continues, "But people somewhere did commit the crime and they need to be arrested. This elusiveness cannot continue without grave damage being done to the U.N.'s credibility."

Immediately after Brammertz's appointment in January 2006, rumors began to circulate that high-ranking U.N. officials in New York had reached an agreement with the Syrian leadership to assure that the investigation would go nowhere, in order to avoid making the regime of President Bashar al-Assad the target of accusations. According to a report in the German weekly Stern, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari had passed on confidential findings of the Mehlis investigation to Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Fayssal Mekdad.

In February 2005, Mehlis accused high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents of being responsible for the Hariri murder. Brammertz, by contrast, merely pointed to some general grounds for suspicion that could suggest Syrian involvement. In his seventh report as well, Brammertz alludes to, without however drawing, the obvious conclusion: "The Commission has largely narrowed down the possible motives for the assassination to those linked to Rafik Hariri's political activities in the months and years leading up to his death. . . . These events include the adoption of Resolution 1559 and the possible or perceived role played by Hariri in the inception and implementation of this resolution, the extension of Lahoud's mandate and the proposed reform of the electoral law as well as Hariri's political posture regarding the 2005 parliamentary elections." Brammertz, moreover, characterizes the cooperation of Syrian authorities with the commission as "generally satisfactory."

In circles familiar with the investigations, it is said that under Brammertz the commission has made "practically no progress" or perhaps "did not want to make any." Not only does the commission not dispose of enough qualified personnel to conduct the investigations in a professional manner, the political will is likewise missing. Of the 141 international positions that have been filled, only 47 are in the investigative department and of these only 30 are investigators, analysts and technical experts. One person who is knowledgeable about the work of the commission has described its procedure as "dilettantish" and accuses commission members of being more occupied with assuring their own safety than with clarifying the circumstances of the murders and assassinations.

One of the principle points of criticism of Brammertz concerns his sparing the Syrian regime of scrutiny. Brammertz did meet with President Assad in Damascus last year, but the meeting did not involve formal questioning: such, for instance, as the formal questioning that Mehlis in September 2005 conducted with the longtime head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazale.

Just after taking up his post, Mehlis had four high-ranking officers arrested whom he suspected of complicity in the Hariri murder. One of the four, Mustafa Hamdan, was the chief of the Presidential Guard of outgoing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. "From today's perspective, it was a mistake for me to have turned over the investigations in January 2006," Mehlis told this reporter. It remains unclear why the German investigator did so. Some have suspected that the German Foreign Office intervened, since it was interested in improving Germany's relationship with Syria. There has also been speculation that the German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), did not want to put at risk its good relationship with the head of Syrian intelligence, Assef Shawqat, who figured among the persons suspected by Mehlis.

Last week, moreover, Lebanese newspapers contained reports of a possible agreement between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Assad that would still further diminish the importance of the commission's work under Brammertz's successor, the Canadian Deputy Attorney General Daniel Bellemare. According to these reports, Sarkozy is supposed to have promised to make concessions to Assad regarding the composition of the international tribunal that the U.N. Security Council has resolved to create to try the Hariri case, if, in exchange, Assad will end his blockade on the election of a new Lebanese president.

The Syrian-supported Lebanese opposition around Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah has thus far refused all the consensus candidates put forward by the governing majority and is continuing to insist that its Christian ally Michel Aoun be chosen as president. Sarkozy is reported to have spoken with Assad by phone in late November. His foreign policy advisor Jean-David Levitte had already met with Assad at the beginning of the month, thus further easing the isolation of Syria pursued by Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac.

Markus Bickel is a Beirut-based German journalist, whose work has appeared in such publications as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Berliner Zeitung and Spiegel Online. The present article was translated from German by John Rosenthal.

Photo: Serge Brammertz at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 29, 2006 (U.N. photo/Marco Castro)