BEIRUT: News emerged Friday that the powerful former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh, a key suspect in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has died.
But reports conflicted over the cause of his death, as well as when and where he died. The death comes nearly two months after he was believed to have been badly beaten by Syrian security forces.
“He died at 7 a.m. today [Friday] in a Damascus hospital and will be buried tomorrow in the capital,” AFP cited a family member as saying. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ghazaleh suffered from hypertension.
The source said Ghazaleh had been fired after getting into a fight with another Syrian official in early March. The source did not elaborate.
The Associated Press said Ghazaleh died in a hospital in the Syrian capital, citing the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdul Rahman. He did not say when Ghazaleh died, but said that medical sources told him the ex-spy chief had been clinically dead for weeks, following a severe head injury suffered about two months ago.
Ghazaleh was reportedly severely beaten in early March upon orders from Syrian military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Rafik Shehadeh. He was moved to the Shami Hospital in Damascus after the beating, which occurred at Shehadeh’s office, sources had told The Daily Star at the time.
The sources said the incident resulted from anger at Ghazaleh over a simmering dispute believed to involve the role of non-Syrian forces such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in directing the war effort.
Some media reports said that Ghazaleh had actually been poisoned when having coffee at Shehadeh’s office after he was beaten.
Others said Ghazali’s death resulted from the beating and electric shocks he received from Shehadeh’s bodyguards, which caused “atrophies in his chest muscles.”
The reports said the man left hospital shortly after the incident and was then brought back in after he suddenly fainted. Doctors had to open a hole in Ghazaleh’s throat to help him breathe.
Ghazaleh, 62, succeeded Ghazi Kanaan as head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon in 2002 during Syria’s tutelage over Lebanon, which lasted until Damascus pulled its troops from the country in 2005. A ruthless officer, Ghazali was described by many as the most powerful man in Lebanon during his three-year service in this post.
Ghazali’s death coincides with the 10th anniversary of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.
It is widely speculated that Ghazali was one of the men who orchestrated the assassination of Hariri. Damascus denies any involvement in the 2005 killing.
Ghaleb al-Shamaa, a confidant and childhood friend of Hariri, said in his testimony before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in February that the late prime minister paid Ghazaleh more than $10 million in cash between 1993 and 2005.
The payments, Shamaa said, were intended to placate Ghazaleh, who oversaw the vast Syrian security network in Lebanon.
Ghazali’s name also emerged in the Al-Madina Bank scandal which broke out in Beirut in 2003. The now defunct bank was involved in money laundering, and Ghazaleh was reportedly involved in the scandal.
Following an explosion which killed members of President Bashar Assad’s crisis cell in Damascus in July 2012, Ghazaleh was appointed the chief of Syria’s infamous political security branch.
Syrian opposition leader Michel Kilo said if Ghazaleh’s death was confirmed, the Syrian regime stood behind his assassination.
“The death of this man will be the first sign of the disintegration of the Syrian regime after the explosion which killed a number of its senior military and security officials,” Kilo told An-Nahar newspaper in reference to the 2012 blast.
Kilo revealed that he met Ghazaleh twice after 2005, adding that the Syrian general tackled Hariri’s assassination with him during their second meeting.
“Ghazaleh told me back then that he was not involved in Hariri’s assassination,” Kilo said. “He told me that at a certain phase, he acquired information on the identity of Hariri’s assassins and that he could have passed this information to the U.N. International Independent Investigation Committee [which probed Hariri’s killing] had he not feared for the fate of his family.”