BEIRUT: Former President Emile Lahoud and his “clique in the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus” may have had motive to kill former Prime Minister Hariri, according to a defense lawyer at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Referencing excerpts from a report by an unidentified U.N. analyst, defense lawyer Guénaël Mettraux suggested that while Hariri’s ties with the Syrian regime were on the mend at the time of his assassination, he was on particularly bad terms with then-President Emile Lahoud.
Hariri’s rapprochement with the Syrian regime and his anticipated success in the 2005 parliamentary polls posed a risk to Lahoud’s own political fortunes, Mettraux suggested.
Hariri’s political ally Bassem al-Sabeh, however, denied knowledge of any rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Hariri.
While cross-examining Sabeh in court, Mettraux advanced the idea that the Syrian regime and Hariri had turned a new page in their historically fraught relationship.
Mettraux quoted former Minister Mohsen Dalloul, who told U.N. investigators in 2010 that at the time of his death Hariri was “happy” about his improving ties with the Syrian regime. Specifically, Hariri was heartened after a meeting with Walid al-Moallem, who had been appointed as Syria’s foreign minister just weeks before Hariri was assassinated.
Moallem traveled to Beirut and met with Hariri in early February 2005 in what Mettraux suggested was perceived as a “conciliatory gesture in Beirut.”
At the meeting, Hariri claimed Emile Lahoud was spying on him.
“There is someone here named Emile Lahoud who has someone from your side working with him here, and they have nothing to do but ... specialize on Rafik Hariri. They send reports, they may send a report about the thing now, that we’re sitting together,” Hariri complained to Moallem.
Mettraux later questioned Sabeh about issues raised by an unidentified analyst working for the UNIIIC who, in 2007, wrote a report about the political context in Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s assassination.
The author suggested that the thaw in relations between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad facilitated by Moallem may have “been conducted at the expense” of Lahoud and a “clique” of top Lebanese and Syrian security operatives in Lebanon who were poised to to lose influence in the country.
According to the author, “Lahoud’s interests were not always synonymous with Syria’s,” a point which Sabeh challenged.
Noting the “rapprochement” between Hariri and Damascus, the author of the report questioned “whether the network could have conspired against Hariri with or even without the knowledge or consent of the Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
When pressed on that point, however, Sabeh said he had no knowledge of any détente between the former prime minister and Assad.
“Assuming there was one,” Mettraux asked Sabeh, “do you think that this loss of influence could have been a motive behind the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri?”
Sabeh said it was “not proper” to answer a “hypothetical question.”
Throughout the day, Mettraux highlighted statements made by Sabeh and others to U.N. investigators suggesting that Hezbollah and Hariri were on fine terms leading up to the assassination.
Mettraux represents the interests of Assad Hasan Sabra, one of five Hezbollah members who have been charged in absentia with plotting Hariri’s assassination and the ensuing cover-up.
While Mettraux highlighted the positive relationship between Hariri and Hezbollah and the improving rapport between the ex-premier and the Syrian regime, he carefully cast Emile Lahoud in a suspicious light.
Mettraux asked Sabeh if he had heard the rumor that Lahoud “was swimming, and he was told that Rafik Hariri had been killed, and he just continued swimming.”
“That was a rumor, a rumor that I do not wish to comment on,” Sabeh said flatly.