BEIRUT: Defense lawyers at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon grilled former Al-Jazeera bureau chief Ghassan Ben Jeddo Friday about a possible role for Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
While no direct accusations were laid and the defense has yet to mount its case, successive lawyers cast a pall of suspicion over the group, insinuating that members of the Islamist group were somehow tied to Hariri’s killing.
Ben Jeddo was quizzed about his relationship with Sheikh Ibrahim al-Masri, the director-general of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, and his son, lawyer Awad al-Masri.
Citing phone records, Guénaël Mettraux said that less than one month prior to Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, Awad al-Masri had sent a text message to an Islamist militant.
The militant was later arrested with 12 other individuals allegedly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The so-called cell of 13 was arrested in connection to Hariri’s killing. One member of the cell confessed to involvement in the killing of the former prime minister but later recanted.
While the defense has yet to suggest its version of events, Friday’s court session seemed to solidify to the defense’s repeated insinuations that Sunni militants may have had a hand in Hariri’s killing.
Vincent Courcelle Labrousse, who represents one of the five Hezbollah members accused of plotting Hariri’s killing and the ensuing cover-up, went so far as to ask Ben Jeddo to identify photos of 17 individuals, many affiliated to Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.
Ben Jeddo was also quizzed about a man identified only as Wissam who worked briefly at Al-Jazeera immediately prior to Hariri’s assassination. Ben Jeddo acknowledged that Wissam was hired after a special recommendation from Sheikh Ibrahim al-Masri.
Wissam, Ben Jeddo told the court, was an unremarkable employee who was helping at the time to procure supplies for Al-Jazeera’s new office. Mettraux, however, revealed that call data logs show that Wissam received phone calls from high-ranking Syrian intelligence officers including Rustom Ghazaleh and Jamea Jamea, both now dead. “It comes to me as a surprise, frankly speaking,” Ben Jeddo said of the revelation.
Ben Jeddo himself seemed taken aback by focus on Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, insisting that the group “is a moderate organization ... I know that they do not call for violence.”
He added soon after that according to information he received, “during the undeclared secret meetings between [Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed] Hasan Nasrallah and Rafik Hariri they used to discuss Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya.”
The tribunal has previously heard about a number of secret meetings between Hariri and high-ranking Hezbollah members, including Nasrallah, in the months leading to the former premier’s assassination.
“I knew back then that both leaders [Hariri and Nasrallah] agreed on most issues in Lebanon,” he said.
The subject of the scheduled 2005 parliamentary elections was broached between the two leaders, Ben Jeddo said. While most of the details regarding the elections were ironed out, he said that the allocation of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s seats remained a point of contention between Nasrallah and Hariri until the latter’s death.
Ben Jeddo revealed that for years he was “under pressure” to incriminate Maj. Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, the chief of General Security when Hariri was killed, in the crime.
Between 2005 and 2008, Ben Jeddo said that he was “indeed made offers,” to inculpate Sayyed.
Ben Jeddo said that one such offer came from “an influential person.”
When asked to provide the name of the individual, Ben Jeddo said he would prefer not to and would only do so if ordered by the court. “Maybe one day I will be able to say [the name],” he added.
Sayyed and three other Lebanese generals were arrested in connection to Hariri’s murder and spent four years in prison before they were released due to lack of evidence.
Ben Jeddo said that he also faced pressure to “talk very negatively about certain parties inside Syria.”