BEIRUT: The former head of the U.N. investigation into Rafik Hariri’s assassination said he still believes the Syrian regime was behind the killing of Lebanon’s five-time prime minister.
“We were convinced that the Syrian regime was involved, and I still think this is true,” said Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the UNIIIC, the body set up by the Security Council to investigate the Valentine’s Day 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Mehlis discussed the start of trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the court set up to try those responsible for the attack, the value of holding the trial in absentia, the possibility of Al-Qaeda’s involvement in the killing, and the reliability of the prosecution’s telecommunications evidence.
Mehlis headed the UNIIIC, the tribunal’s precursor, from May 2005 until January 2006. He is currently the senior public prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office in Berlin.
Mehlis expressed support for the tribunal, but said it had to put the perpetrators of the attack behind bars and shed light on the motive behind Hariri’s killing.
“I don’t think now is the time for criticism, now is the time to support the tribunal,” he told The Daily Star. “I think the STL has to deliver the motive of the assassination, it has to identify the middlemen and the masterminds and bring them to justice.”
“I think that’s also what the Lebanese public expects and hopes for,” he said.
The STL has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with Hariri’s assassination. Trial for four of the suspects began last month at the tribunal’s headquarters near The Hague. None of the suspects have been arrested.
Mehlis said that trial in absentia was valuable as an avenue for victims and their families to express themselves in court.
“Trial in absentia is not the best, but it’s the second best, and I think it also shows the Lebanese public that this case is not forgotten,” he said. “It also shows that the international community is still, after nine years, willing to identify and to sentence the suspects and to bring the perpetrators behind bars.”
Under Mehlis, the UNIIIC said that converging evidence pointed to both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in Hariri’s killing.
But the STL has largely abandoned the Syrian track of the investigation, with no reference to Syrian complicity in the indictment.
However, Mehlis said he did not view the development as a change of track in the investigation.
“We always talked of three layers of responsibility: the operative side, the middlemen, the masterminds,” he said. “Until now I have not seen any contradiction.”
Mehlis’ first report said the assassination must have been carried out by a group that had extensive logistics, considerable resources and capabilities, but did not name any such organization that may have been involved.
Mehlis said there were few groups in Lebanon with such capabilities, but added that there was no evidence at the time linking Hezbollah to the assassination.
His report had identified a group of eight cellphones linked to the attack. The backbone of the prosecution’s case at trial is a massive tranche of telecommunications data that allegedly ties members of Hezbollah to telephones used to track and assassinate Hariri.
Mehlis expressed satisfaction that the telecommunications lead was followed and used to identify some of those allegedly involved in the assassination. But he also defended his own findings, which he said were built on credible investigations and testimony.
He said he did not know why other tracks in the investigation, including evidence pointing to Syrian involvement, were not pursued further.
“Our assessment at that time was definitely not based on a single witness or two witnesses,” he said. “It was an assessment of all the evidence we had on hand.”
Mehlis said that the prosecution has to focus on identifying the individuals behind the attack rather than accusing groups or states, but said that it was illogical to divorce the crime from its political background.
“As we were certain that it was a politically motivated assassination, of course you had to look into the background,” he said. “Which group or which government was behind the assassination for political reasons? What were the political motives?”
Mehlis’ reports at the time when he headed the commission pointed to evidence of Syrian involvement in the killing, set against the political tensions between Hariri and the regime of President Bashar Assad. But the STL’s indictment does not outline a motive for the attack.
Mehlis said a motive was a necessary element when trying such a crime.
“I expect this will come later, because without a motive it will be difficult to have a case,” he said. “I’ve never seen an assassination brought to court without a motive.”
Mehlis also expressed surprise that some observers doubt the value of the telecommunications evidence, describing it as “solid” and “extremely reliable.”
“We are sentencing people to life imprisonment based on DNA analysis and telecommunications, [though] of course it has to be evaluated, if it’s reliable or not,” he said. “I’m surprised that some individuals claim telecommunications data are not reliable. They are more reliable than any witnesses who over the years forget or change their stories.”
Mehlis also broached the accusations against former intelligence chief Wissam al-Hasan, Hariri’s former top bodyguard who was absent from the convoy on the day of the assassination because he was attending an examination.
Shortly before the start of trial, Al-Jadeed aired an interview with Bo Astrom, a former UNIIIC investigator under Mehlis, who said that Hasan’s unusual absence from Hariri’s convoy on the day of the assassination was suspicious.
Hasan was assassinated in a car bomb attack in October 2012 while driving in Ashrafieh.
Mehlis said Hasan’s involvement in Hariri’s murder was “not a credible scenario.”
“Of course we had the fact he was not in the convoy, and we checked why not and we didn’t have the slightest hint that he was involved,” he said.
“We looked into every open door,” he added.
Mehlis confirmed that he had also investigated the possibility of Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Hariri’s killing, but there was neither a motive nor any “indications” pointing to the terror network’s involvement.
Mehlis expressed satisfaction that eight years after the commission began its work, the case was finally being brought to trial.
But he said the evidence that his team uncovered of alleged Syrian involvement, and which showed that the assassination was not a “purely Lebanese affair,” was the original impetus for establishing an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the crime.
Officials, including those in his native Germany, did not initially believe that Syria could take the plunge and assassinate the former prime minister of a neighboring state, he said, adding that the Syrian regime’s response to the uprising in its own country showed what it was capable of.
“The reason to have the STL established was that apparently there was outside involvement in the assassination, and I still think this is true,” he said.