“Some deeply troubling facts about the murder of
Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, have now been established
by a tough and meticulous United Nations investigation,” the Times wrote
in an Oct. 25 editorial demanding punishment for top Syrian and Lebanese
officials supposedly implicated by the report.
But the problem with the Times editorial is that
the report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is anything but
“meticulous,” reading more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence
and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the evidence.
[See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
Mehlis’s report, for instance, fails to follow up a
key lead, the Japanese identification of the Mitsubishi Canter Van that
apparently carried the explosives used in the Feb. 14 bombing that
killed Hariri. The van was reported stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, on
Oct. 12, 2004, but Mehlis’s report indicates no effort to investigate
how the vehicle got from the island of Japan to Beirut.
The report also relies heavily on the testimony of
a dubious witness. According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the
witness – Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik – is a convicted swindler who
also was caught in lies by the U.N. investigative team.
Der Spiegel reported, too, that the intermediary
for Saddik's testimony was Syrian dissident Rifaat al-Assad, who opposes
the regime of his nephew President Bashar Assad, and that Saddik
apparently was paid for supplying his testimony. Saddik called his
brother from Paris in late summer and declared, “I've become a
millionaire,” the brother said, according to
Saddik’s account also contradicts the testimony of
another supposed witness, who is not identified by name in the Mehlis
report. These two central witnesses offer conflicting accounts about the
alleged role of the Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, who claimed
responsibility for the suicide bombing in a videotape released to al-Jazeera
television after the Hariri assassination.
According to the videotape, Hariri was slain by
Islamic militants in Lebanon because of his work as “the agent of the
infidels” in Saudi Arabia. Abu Adass identified himself as the suicide
The Mehlis report uses its two supposed witnesses
to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign to deflect
suspicion from Syria. But the witnesses differ on Abu Adass’s role.
The unidentified witness said Abu Adass “played no
role in the crime except as a decoy … forced at gunpoint to record the
videotape” before being killed.
Saddik, however, claimed he saw Abu Adass at a camp
in Zabadani, Syria, where, Saddik said, the Mitsubishi van was filled
with explosives. Saddik said Abu Adass planned to carry out the
assassination but changed his mind and was then killed by Syrians who
put his body in the vehicle carrying the bomb.
Given the fact that the Mehlis report is now being
cited by the Bush administration as justification for ramping up
international pressure for “regime change” in Damascus, it would seem
reasonable that dangling threads of the investigation be tied down
before the U.N. Security Council heads down a road like the one that
took U.S. troops to Baghdad.
The New York Times editorial does urge George W.
Bush and his advisers to learn some lessons from the Iraq debacle and to
stick to a diplomatic track on Syria.
“As Iraq should have taught even the most hawkish
members of the Bush administration, it is much easier to banter on about
‘regime change’ than to bring it about by military force and then
control the aftermath,” the editorial said.
But it is equally true that the Iraq War should
have taught the New York Times to turn a skeptical eye toward
investigative reports that supposedly have “established” facts, which
are actually not fully supported by the evidence.
It is basic to any professional investigation that
available forensic leads – such as the chain of possession of the
Mitsubishi van – be thoroughly run down before a probe starts relying on
the testimony of flawed witnesses.
While Syria and its reckless intelligence services
deserve to remain prime suspects in the Hariri murder, there is a
danger, too, in rushing to judgments simply because the target of the
investigation is as unpopular as the Syrian dictatorship is.