BEIRUT: Ghassan Ben Jeddo, Al-Jazeera’s former Beirut bureau chief, received three cryptic phone calls just hours after Rafik Hariri was killed and may well have spoken to those responsible for the former prime minister’s assassination, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon heard Thursday.
Between Wednesday and Thursday, Ben Jeddo spent hours answering questions about the accents and vocal characteristics of the three callers who claimed to be members of the Nusra and Jihad Group of Greater Syria.
If the prosecution is to be believed, the calls were made by Hezbollah operatives pretending to be Sunni Islamist militants laying claim to the suicide operation which killed Hariri.
The defense, however, has sought to poke holes in the prosecution’s timeline of events and has suggested that perhaps some fundamentalist Islamic groups may indeed have had motive to kill Hariri.
According to Ben Jeddo, the first call came in around 1:30 p.m., some 35 minutes after a massive car bomb tore through Downtown Beirut, killing Hariri and 21 others.
The first individual, who Ben Jeddo said sounded as if he were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, read an apparently pre-prepared claim of responsibility for the bombing.
A second man called around 2:15 p.m. claiming that a videotaped version of the claim of responsibility could be found stashed in a tree near Al-Jazeera’s offices.
In court Thursday, Ben Jeddo testified that unlike the previous caller, the second caller “could have been Lebanese ... his accent was similar to ours ... from the Levant.”
By the time the phone rang a third time around 3:15 p.m., Ben Jeddo had sent a technician to retrieve the tape, watched it and sent a digital version of its contents to Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar.
The third caller, Ben Jeddo said, had an unmistakable Lebanese accent. “It was definitely a Lebanese individual, but his voice was not familiar to me,” Ben Jeddo said in a statement made to the authoritiesfollowing Hariri’s killing. The statement, along with several other Ben Jeddo has made over the past decade, was presented in court.
The third caller “was asking at the beginning about the reason why we did not broadcast the tape,” Ben Jeddo recounted in court Thursday.
“I answered him and said that our role was to send the tape to Doha and that the main newsroom in Doha would make the decision [about airing the tape].”
“He said, ‘We chose you ... and it is necessary for you to cooperate with us,’” Ben Jeddo said. “Afterward, his tone became stronger, and he became more threatening. He said ‘You will regret [it] if you will not cooperate with us.’”
When Ben Jeddo told the anonymous caller that the group was free to give the footage to another news outlet, the man on the other end of the line softened his tone.
“He stopped in classical Arabic, and started speaking in a neutral, almost colloquial, Arabic,” Ben Jeddo recalled. “‘I would advise you to [air it] because you will be hearing a lot of about us in the future,’ said the man before hanging up.”
According to the pretrial brief, the prosecution believes that two Hezbollah members charged with the conspiracy to kill Hariri made the phone calls and planted the tape in the tree.
Either Assad Hassan Sabra or Hussein Hassan Oneissi made the first call to Al-Jazeera’s offices, perhaps feigning a foreign accent.
“Sabra’s and Oneissi’s locations before the calls made from the first and second pay phones, the distance between the two pay phones and the time between the two calls indicate that either Sabra or Oneissi made the 14:19 call,” the pretrial brief states.
The prosecution claims that cell phone records indicate that Sabra made the second call, while Oneissi surveyedthe tree in Downtown Beirut waiting for the videotape to be collected by an Al-Jazeera employee.
Either Oneissi or Sabra made the third call, the prosecution claims “as either could have traveled from their previous locations” to reach the pay phone used to contact Al-Jazeera’s office.
Members of the defense will continue to cross-examine Ben Jeddo Friday. Defense counsel Guenael Mettraux is poised to continue quizzing Ben Jeddo about the specifics of the phone calls.