THE HAGUE: Ahmad Abu Adass, a man who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was in fact a member of Al-Qaeda who was aware of the plot to assassinate the former premier, a top defense lawyer said in a sit-down interview with The Daily Star.
The prosecution insists that the recording by Abu Adass was coerced.
Defense lawyers have also officially requested to interview Faisal Akbar, the leader of the “cell of 13,” a group of radical Islamists with links to both Abu Adass and Al-Qaeda who were arrested in late 2005 and whose leader initially confessed to the Hariri assassination, the lawyer said.
“We have material evidence that Abu Adass is a member of Al-Qaeda,” said Antoine Korkmaz, the lead defense counsel for top Hezbollah operative Mustafa Badreddine.
Badreddine is indicted by the court for his alleged role as the “apex” of the assassination squad that claimed the lives of 22 victims including Hariri.
Abu Adass had appeared in a video aired shortly after the bombing, claiming responsibility on behalf of a group called “Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.”
The prosecution alleges that the group is fictitious and that Abu Adass had nothing to do with the assassination. His DNA was not found at the crime scene.
But Korkmaz said Abu Adass had links to the cell of 13.
Korkmaz revealed that Akbar had delivered confessions to Lebanese investigators in the case, including on the identity of the alleged suicide bomber who carried out the attack.
“He gave information on the Mitsubishi, how it was bought and who bought it, and he gave the name of the suicide bomber,” he said. “He gave his name. His name is recorded.”
Korkmaz was referring to a Mitsubishi Canter van seen on CCTV footage on the day of the explosion and that allegedly carried the 2 tons of explosives used to destroy Hariri’s motorcade.
Korkmaz declined to reveal the name or nationality of the alleged suicide bomber, only saying it was clear he was from a country in Lebanon’s “vicinity.”
Akbar later retracted his statement after meeting with a “prominent security official,” Korkmaz said.
Korkmaz added that U.N. investigators only superficially questioned Akbar, and did not press him on why he made the confession.
He also cited an email from one of the cell’s members to a contact in Syria referring to Abu Adass.
Abu Adass’ ties to fundamentalist networks had long been the subject of speculation, but Korkmaz’s statements indicate that defense lawyers may be in possession of evidence proving those links.
That would be the latest twist in a case where Abu Adass has been alternatively portrayed as a frail and simple man who was abducted by the suspects indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and coerced into the claim of responsibility, and as a member of a shadowy terrorist network involved in the assassination of Hariri.
Abu Adass worked in the summer of 2004 at a computer shop belonging to Sheikh Ahmad al-Sani, a member of a network of Al-Qaeda members arrested by Lebanese security forces less than five months before the Hariri assassination who were accused of plotting attacks against Lebanese figures and Western diplomats.
The network was headed by two men called Ahmad Mikati and Ismail al-Khatib, the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon at the time.
“What I want to say is the Abu Adass issue is a real one, not an imaginary one, and is linked to the cell of 13,” Korkmaz said.
Faisal Akbar, the leader of the cell of 13, was released last summer from Roumieh prison, and was immediately deported through his embassy, he said.
Korkmaz revealed that defense teams had submitted a request to question Akbar.
“We requested from the authorities in the country he is in to allow the defense to question him,” he said. “The issue of the cell of 13 deserves more attention and the defense is working on the issue.”
The lead defense counsel added that the cell of 13 had links, including financial ties, to Al-Qaeda.
Korkmaz criticized the prosecution’s case, saying it was based on circumstantial evidence and co-location techniques, which by themselves are not enough to prove the guilt of his client or his identity.
“You have to give material evidence, such as voice recordings, SMS’s, or witnesses, but there is nothing,” he said. “These communications, do we know their content?”
Even if the defense accepted that extensive surveillance of Hariri was being conducted, that does not prove that those who tracked him also killed him, Korkmaz said.
Many security agencies carry out surveillance without there being criminal intent, he said, adding that Hariri was also in contact with Hezbollah’s leadership for the upcoming 2005 parliamentary election campaign.
“It was a period when Rafik Hariri had meetings with Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah for the elections, and there were discussions and negotiations with Hezbollah,” he said. “It is possible that those in charge of security are looking into protection or want to know who the other person is meeting and so on.”
Korkmaz’s argument is bolstered by the fact that the red network, a group of telephones that the prosecution says belonged to the actual assassins, remains almost completely unidentified.
The only member of the assassination team that has been named is Salim Ayyash.
“How did you identify Salim Ayyash but not the others?” Korkmaz said.
Ayyash, the prosecution said during its opening statements, is married to a relative of Badreddine. Korkmaz said the prosecution was relying on this familial link to tie Badreddine to the conspiracy.
“If the prosecutor does not know who are the people he is accusing of carrying out the attack, how can we have a trial?” he said.
Korkmaz also condemned the prosecution for referring to the sect of the suspects in court, describing all of them as Shiites.
“That is unacceptable in all laws in the world,” he said. “When you prosecute someone you do not mention their religion.”
“It’s true that Lebanon is a sectarian country, but there is respect for the religion of individuals,” he added.
“It is unacceptable and forbidden and punishable under Lebanese law.”