BEIRUT: Lebanese judge Ralph Riachi has been appointed deputy president of the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, media reports said on Thursday. Antonio Cassisse, presiding judge for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, announced Riachi's appointment during a joint interview with his new colleague published by the Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper. The names of the Lebanese judges had previously been kept under wraps due to security concerns. Riachi has already relocated to the tribunal's headquarters in Leidschendam, a suburb outside of The Hague. Commenting on security measures, he told the paper he felt adequately protected. "I live with policemen," Riachi said jokingly. "I have a team to protect me in The Hague and in Beirut, and I have a sufficient number of security guards."
Riachi's appointment came less than one week after the tribunal's registrar, Robin Vincent resigned unexpectedly, citing personal reasons. Vincent will stay on in The Hague until June.
Cassisse meanwhile told the paper he intended to visit Lebanon and Syria in May, and would submit a request to the Syrian authorities to discuss a memorandum of agreement on the extradition of any Syrian suspects of witnesses to The Hague. He reiterated the Tribunal's neutrality, adding that the court was "pursuing a serious endeavor, not seeking any political gains and refused any sort of political interference."
Meanwhile on Thursday, Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper reported that police in Sharjah handed over a key suspect in the Hariri tribunal to their Abu Dhabi counterparts. Mohammad Zuhair Siddiq was transferred as he posed a threat to national security in the United Arab Emirates and possessed a fake passport, the newspaper said.
Abu Dhabi police will now decide whether to imprison Siddiq or surrender him to Syria, should Damascus submit an extradition request. The tribunal's spokesperson, Suzanne Khan, refused to comment on Siddiq's arrest, telling the newspaper the Hariri tribunal had "nothing to do with the handover of Siddiq."
The news came after Dubai's top police officer General Dahi Khalfan denied on Tuesday reports that Siddiq had been detained in Dubai. The allegations first emerged last Friday after an unidentified Arab diplomat in Dubai told reporters that Siddiq had been arrested in the United Arab Emirates.
Siddiq, allegedly a former Syrian intelligence agent, was arrested in Paris in October 2005 under an international arrest warrant requested by a Lebanese prosecutor. He was put under house arrest after the French government refused a request to extradite him to Lebanon, saying it had failed to receive guarantees that Siddiq would not face the death penalty if convicted. Siddiq disappeared in March 2008, prompting accusations by his brother that France had "liquidated" him.
In 2006, Siddiq claimed Syrian President Bashar Assad and his then-Lebanese counterpart Emile Lahoud had ordered Hariri's murder, which also killed 22 others along Beirut's seafront in February 2005. The UN tribunal prosecuting Hariri's assassins initially considered Siddiq a key witness in their probe, but made him a suspect after his testimonies were discredited.
In March, tribunal officials said they had received a number of phone calls from Siddiq but did not know his whereabouts.
Four other suspects - Generals Raymond Azar, Ali Hajj, Mustafa Hamdan and Jamil al-Sayyed - are being held in connection with Hariri's death, after three civilians were released on bail in late February. The tribunal's prosecutor Daniel Bellemare was expected to recommend whether the men should be released later this month, but As-Safir newspaper reported on Thursday that he had requested more time to deliberate.
The generals, who all worked in Lebanon's pro-Syrian security institutions at the time of Hariri's assassination, were incarcerated in 2005 at the recommendation of former UN investigator Detlev Mehlis. The men have never been formally charged but were brought into custody on suspicion of terrorism, murder and attempted murder - accusations that their lawyers say are based on the false testimony of a witness later discredited by investigators.
According to the newspaper, Bellemare's request was made in a letter to the tribunal's pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen. Earlier this month, Lebanon's investigative judge Saqr Saqr lifted arrest warrants for the men, and the men will likely be released if not charged, though they are expected to remain in custody until Bellemare delivers his recommendation. According to Cassisse, Bellemare's decision will be made public between April 27 and May 4.