Lebanon News

Ex-Al-Jazeera bureau chief testifies at STL

BEIRUT: Hours after an explosion tore through Downtown Beirut killing Rafik Hariri and 21 others, Al-Jazeera’s Beirut Bureau Chief Ghassan Ben Jeddo spoke on the phone with one of the self-professed perpetrators of the attack, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon heard Wednesday.

The man spoke fast, in a foreign accent which Ben Jeddo could not quite place, saying that the Nusra and Jihad Group for Greater Syria had killed Hariri.

But who, exactly, was on the other line remains a point of contention between the prosecution and defense.

The prosecution alleges that five Hezbollah members plotted Hariri’s execution and staged an elaborate cover-up to make it appear as though an erstwhile-unknown radical Sunni group, the Nusra and Jihad Group for Greater Syria, had killed Hariri.

The defense, which has yet to mount its case, has suggested during cross-examination that some fundamentalist Islamic elements may indeed have had motive to kill Hariri.

The claim of responsibility, or false claim as the prosecution maintains, which the caller narrated to Ben Jeddo over the phone and was later discovered on a video cassette stashed in Downtown Beirut, has taken center stage at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as the prosecution, defense and trial judges attempt to glean information about who is behind it.

Ben Jeddo told the court Wednesday that the caller spoke for an hour and a half, reading what appeared to be a pre-written claim of responsibility for Hariri’s killing. “I think the person was dictating to us what was written in front of him,” he testified.

“He was not screaming or shouting. But his language was not a very good Arabic.”

The man, Ben Jeddo told the court, spoke in formal, literary Arabic and seemed ill at ease with the pronunciation. He suggested, without any certainty, that the caller may have been Pakistani or Afghani, as he recognized the voice as sounding similar to those appearing in terror videos made by Islamist cells in those countries around the same time.

“Those accents were not foreign to us,” Ben Jeddo testified. “We heard a lot of recordings, we saw a lot of tapes and we had dialogues [with people] who spoke ... with that accent.”

But Ben Jeddo – who left Al-Jazeera and became the general manager of the pro-Hezbollah Al-Mayadeen satellite news channel – told the court that prior to that day he had never heard of the “Nusra and Jihad Group for Greater Syria,” and had no proof that it ever actually existed.

He acknowledged that he could not place the caller’s accent, as perhaps he was indeed an Arabic speaker who was feigning poor command of the language.

In the coming days Ben Jeddo is expected to testify about another phone call he received on that afternoon from a different man, this one speaking perfect Arabic, who told him that a videotaped copy of the claim of responsibility could be found in a tree in Downtown Beirut.

The Al-Jazeera technician who retrieved the tape from the tree completed his testimony Wednesday before Ben Jeddo took the stand.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2015, on page 3.

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