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STL defense: Charges against Hezbollah shocking

A portrait of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is seen on his grave in downtown Beirut, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

THE HAGUE: Defense lawyers for two members of Hezbollah accused of complicity in the Hariri assassination delivered compelling opening salvos in the case Friday, saying the prosecution does not have a “shred of evidence” against their clients and that it was “astonishing” to accuse Hezbollah of carrying out the attack.

The lawyers said that call data records showing the surveillance of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri ahead of his assassination did not prove the suspects intended to kill him, and that the defense is investigating the possibility that he was killed by fundamentalists who confessed to the assassination and later retracted the claim.

They also made a shocking revelation that the man who originally discovered the telecommunications evidence, which allegedly shows the surveillance of Hariri prior to his killing, was a Lebanese Army Intelligence officer working under a pro-Syrian general who was arrested for the Hariri attack.

“Right now there is no material evidence that proves the existence of a conspiracy,” said Antoine Korkmaz, lead defense counsel for Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah operative charged with overall control of the alleged assassination team.

Over a one hour news conference, lawyers for Badreddine and Hussein Oneissi, who are scheduled to deliver opening statements Monday, poked holes in the prosecution’s elaborate case, which was presented over two days and featured complex call data records that they allege show a sophisticated surveillance network used to track and kill the former premier.

“We don’t think that there’s anything new that was presented whatsoever,” Korkmaz said.

“Right now, the prosecutor talks about telecoms evidence,” he said. “The main question to be asked is: What is the content of these communications? What did Badreddine say to Ayyash? What did Ayyash say to Merhi? And what was the exchange between Sabra and Oneissi?”

“Right now there is nothing that reveals the content of these telephone conversations between the accused,” he added. “These telephone conversations do not necessarily mean there is a plot to kill someone.”

The prosecution argues that the extent and sophistication of Hariri’s surveillance shows intent to kill him and is not coincidental or innocent. But they have to prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt to earn a conviction.

Korkmaz said the accusation against members of Hezbollah was “astonishing,” adding that Hariri was considering running in joint parliamentary elections with Hezbollah at the time of his death.

“We really don’t see how an ally can kill another ally during a parliamentary campaign,” he said. “We know that there was a lot of trust and confidence between Hariri and [Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed] Nasrallah.”

“Therefore we find it really astonishing to claim that people from Hezbollah could plot to kill Mr. Hariri,” he added.

The defense lawyers said the prosecutor’s case was just a theory that did not even answer the question of why Hariri was assassinated.

“The crime for the time being seems bereft of any motive,” Oneissi defense lawyer Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse said.

Korkmaz also made the shock revelation that the telecommunications evidence relied on by the prosecution was first discovered by Col. Ghassan Tufaily, an officer who worked in military intelligence under Gen. Raymond Azar, a pro-Syrian general arrested in connection with the assassination and later released.

He said that Capt. Wissam Eid, an ISF officer killed after working closely on the telecoms evidence with investigators, had inherited this evidence.

Korkmaz said the prosecutor’s investigation should have included the Eid assassination.

The defense lawyers also questioned the strategy of the prosecution, saying the technical evidence identifying the location of the suspects should not be admissible in court.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted when I read in [an] interview that the prosecutor said, with the greatest calm and levelheadedness, that he was pursuing his investigations,” Korkmaz said. “The investigations are still underway. We’re starting trial and the investigations haven’t even finished?”

Korkmaz also revived the theory that members of a cell of 13 extremists, some of who were arrested after the Hariri assassination, may have carried out the attack.

Several in the alleged cell of 13 had confessed to carrying out the assassination but retracted their confession, according to Korkmaz.

The head of the cell, a man called Faisal Akbar, was released this summer from Roumieh prison. The allegation has renewed interest in the theory that Islamist fundamentalists had killed Hariri.

A claim of responsibility for the attack, which the prosecution says was coerced, was delivered shortly after the bombing by a group called Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.

“Based on the documents that have been disclosed to us, we found out that investigation was not serious,” Korkmaz said. “Some people confessed to some facts but then withdrew what they said.”

Korkmaz said he was pursuing an investigation in the case of the cell, but declined to elaborate.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2014, on page 2.

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