Lebanon News

Qassem hints at Cabinet session walkout if 'false witnesses' file not settled

BEIRUT: The government meeting Wednesday should be decisive in the settlement of the disputed issue of “false witnesses” or else Hizbullah and its allies may leave the ministerial discussions, Sheikh Naim Qassem told The Daily Star in an interview over the weekend.

“We are only ready to attend Wednesday’s Cabinet session if the issue of false witnesses is on top of its agenda and on the basis of settling it [the dispute] by referring the issue to the Judicial Council or putting it to vote,” the Hizbullah deputy secretary general said.

“We will not accept to take part in any government session or continuing to take part in a session that does not have the issue of false witnesses on top of its agenda and which doesn’t wrap up the case whether negatively or positively,” the articulate Qassem said in the interview held at an unidentified location in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Hizbullah has accused witnesses of misleading a UN-backed probe into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in order to implicate Syria, and later Hizbullah. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), tasked with prosecuting suspects in the assassination, is expected to issue an indictment implicating Hizbullah members.

Qassem said a compromise to break the political deadlock would be possible as long as an indictment clearly accusing Hizbullah members is not yet released, in reference to the period between the referral of the indictment by the STL prosecutor and its issuance by the pre-trial judge.

“We do not take into consideration the procedures adopted by the STL and its work but all we care about is when an indictment clearly accusing Hizbullah is released,” Qassem said when asked about the expiry date of the party’s “grace period” allotted to Prime Minister Saad Hariri to renounce the STL.

STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare is expected to file the indictment in a couple of weeks to pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who could then take up to 10 weeks before referring it to the court – if convinced of the evidence presented to him – and deciding whether to release it to the public.

“How it [the indictment] is done and when, is a procedure that concerns the court but we consider that the opportunity is available before its release because the situation before the release of the indictment will be different from what follows,” Qassem said.

Hizbullah has warned Hariri of the indictment’s negative repercussions if the premier fails to renounce the court prior to its release and has urged Hariri to take a step in that direction starting with referring the issue of “false witnesses” to the Judicial Council.

But the Hariri-led coalition fears that the investigation of witnesses by the Judicial Council would block the work of the STL and has warned that such a step would put Lebanon in direct confrontation with the international community.

“Any compromise before the indictment is released has prerequisites and possibilities but after it is released, we will face a new situation and I can’t predict the steps to follow in such an event,” Qassem said.

Qassem added that, under the current circumstances, Hariri shouldered the responsibility of putting an end to Lebanon’s political crisis in line with Syrian-Saudi efforts aimed to break the deadlock.

“We think that Prime Minister Hariri can offer major assistance. But let us leave the issue for upcoming days to determine whether he will take such a step or not. The outcome will prove it,” Qassem said when asked if the Syrian-Saudi bid to break the deadlock awaited Hariri’s approval.

Qassem said concerns voiced over the possible deterioration of the security situation were justified, though Hizbullah does not seek strife.

When asked about Hizbullah’s interest in staging a military coup that could eventually serve Israeli and US interests, Qassem smiled and said the indictment should be distinguished from news analysis that only future facts could prove true.

While he refrained to comment on such analysis, Qassem said “concerns exist because parties associated with this indictment are very numerous.”

“While some parties are visible like Hizbullah and its allies on the one hand and the Future Movement and its allies on the other, some are hidden like the Israeli Mossad and some private organizations along with the US and its allies seeking to exploit the repercussions of the indictment,” he added.

However, Qassem said the resistance has not yet decided on future steps, which would be evaluated in line with the reactions to follow the release of the indictment.

“We are facing a scenario with visible and hidden parties and thus it is not known who would set the spark or when or the reactions to follow. As a party we prefer to leave our official position till after the indictment is released in line with the nature of reactions to follow and their outcome,” Qassem said.

Hizbullah has condemned the STL as a politicized Israeli-US tool aimed to deal a blow to the resistance with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah discrediting the impending indictment, which he said was already completely disclosed by Western media and would fail to present any solid evidence.

News reports have said the indictment would be based on phone call patterns that tied members of Hizbullah to members of a cell implicated in the assassination, which Hizbullah says Israel initiated after hacking Lebanese telecommunication networks.

However, Qassem said the resistance would reject any indictment by the UN-backed tribunal even if based on evidence other than telecommunication records. “One of the possibilities is that the court could have Israeli intelligence information upon which it could base its indictment with the tribunal’s by-laws allowing it to rely on unidentified witnesses and written reports while keeping its sources undisclosed,” Qassem said.

“Thus we are looking at a lot of fabricated information that could lead to the indictment of anyone the US or Israel wants to indict … similar to the war on Iraq, which was allegedly based on a report submitted by the British intelligence to its US counterparts, which Washington used as a pretext to launch a war to later discover that it was a fake,” Qassem added.

Asked why Hizbullah acknowledged the legitimacy of the court in National Dialogue talks in 2006 but currently condemns it as based on illegal grounds, Qassem said the resistance gave its preliminary approval to avoid Sunni-Shiite tension and sectarian strife. “But when we asked to discuss the tribunal and its procedures, then Premier Fouad Siniora refused to respond to our demands for a year and a half after our withdrawal from the Cabinet and during our sit-in in downtown Beirut,” he said.

Qassem added that the May 2008 Doha agreement which ended clashes between pro-government and opposition gunmen, following Siniora’s Cabinet decision to dismantle Hizbullah’s telecommunication network, called for “the abolition of all factors that could spark a political explosion.”

“Factors among which are the funding of the tribunal and its continued work,” Qassem said.

Commenting on whether Hizbullah deemed MP Walid Jumblatt as an ally, Qassem said the Progressive Socialist Party leader was closer to the March 8 coalition when it comes to his support for the resistance and its strategic confrontation with Israel.





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