According to Reports: Five Year Later, Hariri Murder Probe Goes Nowhere

In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column “According to Reports,” Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, looks at how the media ignored an important Mideast story – the fifth anniversary of the murder of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

Early last week, the media’s foreign affairs gaze was fixed on the way Iran marked the 31st anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution – in particular, its increasingly repressive domination of its citizens and its open defiance of the international community over its nuclear program.

Almost entirely overlooked was another anniversary in the Middle East, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

CBC Radio’s Feb. 14 World Report was an exception. It featured a news report by freelancer Ben Gilbert in Beirut. After describing what he called “a pretty festive atmosphere” in which, under tight security control, thousands of people paraded down a street chanting and singing and holding pictures of Hariri and his son Saad, the current prime minister, Gilbert turned his attention to what’s become of the investigation into Hariri’s murder.

He noted that even though Saad Hariri, along with his coalition partners, had accused Syria of killing his father, especially after initial indications pointed to Syria’s culpability, Saad this year traveled to Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. “That was seen as a big compromise,” Gilbert said.

As to the United Nations investigation, Gilbert added that it “has pretty much gone nowhere…Three different [UN] investigators have been head of this investigation and nothing concrete has come out of it, yet.”

In “A UN Betrayal in Beirut” (New York Times, Feb. 14), Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, provided additional details and was bluntly critical about the UN’s failure to make any headway in this case.

Young began his piece by reminding readers that the Hariri assassination launched the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, forced Syria to withdraw its army from the country and led the UN Security Council to investigate the murder. The initial investigation team in 2005 was led by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, whose first report pointed a finger at Syria’s involvement.

Young wrote that by the end of that year, when Mehlis stepped down, “he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the [Syrian] intelligence officers” and to name other suspects. Four Lebanese intelligence officials suspected of involvement were already being held in custody.

However, under Mehlis’ successor, Belgian judge Serge Brammertz, the investigation quickly withered, even though it had been upgraded to a “special tribunal” near the Hague. Brammertz stepped down at the end of 2007.

According to Young things went from bad to worse: “More disturbing, the United Nations itself has remained silent, even though Mr. Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare of Canada, has suffered his own setbacks. Last April, despite having acquired prosecutorial powers, he was forced by the tribunal’s bylaws to release the imprisoned [Lebanese] suspects pending an indictment. Mr. Bellemare deserves blame for taking on such a weak case in the first place, effectively legitimizing his predecessor’s shoddy work. But the onus surely lies with Mr. Brammertz, and with those at United Nations headquarters who never held him to account.”

The sharp decline in the UN investigation was followed by changes in the region that also made Lebanon less inclined to pursue Syria in this case. According to Young, Saad Hariri’s meeting with Assad last year came about as a result of pressure Hariri was under from his backer, Saudi Arabia, which was attempting to reconcile with Syria, in large part, it may be assumed, to lessen Iran’s influence over Damascus.

In the meantime, Syria has been reasserting its power in Lebanon, and although Young didn’t mention this, Syria has been emboldened by Iran’s backing and its support of Hezbollah. This development has led to recent heated exchanges between Israel and Syria over the increased threat Jerusalem sees coming from Hezbollah’s heavy re-arming by Iran and Syria (in violation of UN Security Council resolutions).

Even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to calm the waters by speaking about the need for peace, Assad has maintained a belligerent posture warning Israel about the consequences of any “aggression against Hezbollah.”

Tensions remain strong on Israel’s northern border even while the United States plans to nominate Robert Ford, a career diplomat, to become the first US ambassador to Damascus since 2005.