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Syrian court strikes back in UN Hariri probe with own arrest warrants

A Syrian court allegedly issues arrest warrants against 33 officials, including former UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, involved in the international probe into the assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Lebanese police block the scene of a massive bomb attack

Rafiq Hariri was killed by a car bomb attack in Beirut in 2005

The potential for an escalation in tensions surrounding the UN-backed investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri increased dramatically last week when a Damascus court allegedly issued arrest warrants against individuals it claims misled the international tribunal.

It is claimed that the Syrian court has ordered the arrest of 33 people including Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who led the early stages of the UN investigation, accusing a wide range of officials of giving false testimony to the UN tribunal.

According to General Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of Lebanon's security services who was imprisoned for over four years on suspicion of being involved in Hariri's killing, a senior judge in Damascus has issued arrest warrants "against judges, security officers, politicians, journalists and other Lebanese, Arab and foreign officials and individuals" involved in the investigation into the 2005 assassination.

Lebanese General Jamil el Sayed during a public hearing in the the courtroom of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the Hague

Sayyed issued his complaint to the court in Damascus

Along with Mehlis, the officials targeted by the Damascus court include Ashraf Rifi, Lebanon's chief of police, top prosecutor Saeed Mirza, former justice minister Charles Rizk and Abdel Halim Khadda, Syria's exiled former vice president.

Sayyed, who along with three other suspects in Hariri's murder was released last year due to lack of evidence, lodged a complaint with the Damascus court claiming that the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was based on fabricated testimony aimed at implicating Syria and its supporters in Lebanon.

Sayyed claims that Lebanese officials had refused to consider his complaint and that the UN had also rejected his accusations, leading to him submitting his case to the court in Damascus.

German prosecutor rejects claims

The investigation led by Mehlis, the Commissioner of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) between 2005 and 2006 and author of two reports that implicated Lebanese and Syrian Military Intelligence in the assassination, has regularly been cited by Syria and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in their attempts to discredit the entire process. The arrest warrant suggests that as tensions around the probe increase so will the campaign against Mehlis and his work on the case.

Mehlis rejected the claims that an arrest warrant had been issued against him and told Deutsche Welle that he was unaware of what basis any such warrant would have.

UN investigator German Detlev Mehlis

Mehlis and his investigation have been attacked by critics

"I do not have the slightest idea what basis, if any, Syria has for issuing an arrest warrant and I have not received any official notification from anyone, including the UN and my own government on the actual existence of a Syrian arrest warrant against me," he said. "If indeed an arrest warrant exists among others against the former Lebanese Justice Minister, the Chief of Police the General Prosecutor and above all witnesses in the assassination case, I would consider this as interference in the ongoing investigation."

When asked if the arrest warrants added weight to the belief that Damascus was somehow involved in Hariri's death and that Syria was trying to further discredit the investigation, Mehlis said: "You certainly have to wonder for what reason a country is so determined to get rid of an independent judicial process."

Heiko Wimmen, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, questioned the legitimacy of the warrants and the sources behind the evidence supporting them.

"It is next to impossible to judge whether or not there is reliable factual evidence," he told Deutsche Welle. "The fact is that, during the early phase, the statements of witnesses with doubtful credentials were given more credit than they seemed to deserve. With hindsight, it appears difficult to avoid the conclusion that during that phase, the investigation was determined to indict the Syrian regime or a certain faction within it, and was therefore ready to accept evidence at face value that should have been probed more thoroughly."

"The Syrians and their Lebanese allies claim that this was not merely a result of negligence or bias on the side of the tribunal, but that these 'false witnesses' were in fact 'fabricated' by people close to Hariri - the group against which the Syrians now issued the warrants. At least one of the 'false witnesses' defected to Syria in late 2005, retracted his statements, and claimed that he was threatened and bribed into making them, so it is possible that the Syrian warrants are based on these statements."

Arrest warrants part of a wider plan of disruption

"The arrest warrants are part of a concerted effort to undermine confidence and faith in the STL," Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "It is succeeding to a certain extent because it is diverting attention to side issues."

A Hezbollah supporter, uses a Lebanese flag to cover his face

Beirut was paralyzed by strikes, riots and bombings in 2007

"The question is not really about the warrants but about the STL which is an instrument of international protection over Lebanon. When it was set up, the country was under siege with parliament paralysed, the town center was occupied by the opposition, assassinations were regularly occurring, terror attacks and threats were ongoing. The failure of the STL would be the failure of this protection. It is the UN that is on trial as much as the perpetrators of the crimes in Lebanon - it is a test of whether international legality exists and can provide such protection."

"Making this move now is obviously part of a larger campaign, waged by Hezbollah and Syria, to discredit the tribunal and ultimately, to scrap it altogether, ahead of the expected indictments, which according to unofficial information will implicate members of Hezbollah," said Heiko Wimmen. "It is a message to Hariri that all his attempts to reconcile with Damascus will not do as long as he refuses to disown the tribunal."

The STL has been investigating claims that Hezbollah, with support from Syria, was behind the car bomb that killed Hariri in Beirut five years ago. Both the Shiite group and the government in Damascus have consistently denied the accusations. Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon after a 29-year presence in response to the claims and bilateral ties between the two nations soured considerably as a result.

Syria-Lebanon relations likely to suffer further

Relations between Lebanon and Syria had been slowly normalizing since Rafiq Hariri's death, as indicated by Syrian President Basher al-Assad's visit to Lebanon in August and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's efforts to improve the relationship between the two countries over the past year, even going as far as saying that he had been wrong to implicate Syria in the death of his father. However further tensions seem likely as a result of this week's visit to Beirut by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is seen as a staunch supporter of Hezbollah.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Relations between Saad Hariri and Assad's Syria may unravel

The visit and news of the arrest warrants are likely to strike a new blow to relations between Damascus and Beirut which are once again becoming strained over reports that the STL is ready to indict members of Hezbollah in connection with Hariri's murder.

Just as significantly, it could also alter the course of the STL's investigation and any subsequent prosecutions.

"Syria did not issue these arrest warrants," said Nadim Shehadi. "The announcement was made by the press office of General Jamil Sayyid. An official Syrian statement dismissing the importance of the warrants came a couple of days later."

"However, what is relevant in this affair is that it is an emphatic 'no' from Damascus to Saad Hariri's offer of a compromise with both Hezbollah and Syria. The compromise involves putting everything related to the assassinations in a box called 'the tribunal' and carrying on with normal relations."

"Also if there is any indictment of Hezbollah members or Syrians, Hariri explicitly said that they would then be considered as rogue elements and not taken to implicate any others. The offer thus uses the STL as an instrument of stability rather than that of instability. The fact that the arrest warrants include most of Saad Hariri's entourage and advisors means that the Syrians will accept nothing less than abolition of the STL."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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