BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Horrific damage done to Hariri crime scene: expert

File - A view of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon building in The Hague. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: A bomb expert said Wednesday that he was “horrified” by the damage done to the evidence in the crime scene where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, saying it had likely caused irreversible damage to DNA and material evidence at the site.

“If the scene of the crime had been treated that way in Switzerland I would indeed have been horrified,” said Konrad Schlatter, a Swiss chemist and explosives expert, as he testified before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The extent of the shocking damage to the crime scene emerged slowly in the public hearing as defense lawyers tried to cast doubt on the validity of evidence collected in the aftermath of the massive blast, including explosive material and DNA evidence crucial to the prosecution’s case.

Defense counsel showed videos of forklifts carrying the remains of Hariri’s convoy just before midnight on the night of the attack, mechanically carrying vehicle parts and likely damaging evidence in the process.

Another video passage showed a bulldozer dragging a mangled vehicle close to the ground, also likely destroying evidence.

“This is absolutely the wrong thing for a later forensic investigation,” Schlatter said. “Any damage to the scene of the crime represents a possible risk that you can no longer answer every question or give precise answers, whether its biological material or material evidence.”

The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that killed Lebanon’s former charismatic premier and 21 other victims, and plunged the country into years of political turmoil.

The court indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the attack, and began their trial in absentia earlier this year.

At the heart of Schlatter’s testimony was the question of whether the Hariri attack was the result of an underground or roadside bomb. Prosecutors say an explosives-laden Mitsubishi Canter van was detonated as the motorcade passed by.

Defense lawyers have challenged the theory, saying they believe it was an underground bomb.

Proving that the Canter van was used in the attack is a crucial piece of the puzzle for prosecutors, who are claiming that two alleged senior members of the conspiracy, Mustafa Badreddine and Salim Ayyash, were involved in the purchase of the vehicle from a showroom in Tripoli.

Defense lawyers repeatedly hammered home how badly mismanaged the crime scene was, in an attempt to cast doubt on the evidence hinting at a bomb above the ground.

David Young, a member of the defense counsel for Assad Sabra, a suspect in the case, said biological evidence was likely destroyed as vehicles and individuals ran amok in the crime scene, and said the area was probably contaminated by biological evidence introduced into the scene by outsiders.

Schlatter agreed there had been “minimal or no protection of the evidence,” though he stood by his conclusions that the bomb, which he estimated included between 1,000-1,600 kg of explosive material, was above the ground.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 28, 2014, on page 3.

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