The U.N. report on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, has given a lift to George W. Bush, who demands a “change of regime” in Damascus. The investigation, however, has many holes.
The report concludes that the bomb that killed Hariri and another 22 people, which was likely activated in a Mitsubishi van, was detonated by a kamikaze. While the driver’s identity remains a mystery, a Japanese expert team identified the specific vehicle. The chain of possession for that van thus would seem to be a crucial lead in identifying the killers. But on that central point, the U.N. investigation made little headway, devoting only a few paragraphs to how the van ended up in Beirut.
In order to back uncertain conclusions fingering Syria, the U.N. investigation also relies on witnesses of uncertain credibility who implicated Syrian security officials, with accounts that are partially contradictory. For instance, the two supposed witnesses differed on the fate of the Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, who claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in a videotape released to al-Jazeera television. But Mehlis relied on those supposed witnesses to dismiss the videotape as part of a misinformation campaign to deflect suspicion from Syria.
One witness – described in the U.N. report as “of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon” – said Abu Adass “played no role in the crime except as a decoy,” who was detained “in Syria and forced at gunpoint to record the videotape” before being killed. Another alleged witness, Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, 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.
One of the problems with such “witnesses” is that they can be unreliable for a variety of reasons, including the possibility they are paid or otherwise induced to present false stories to help achieve a result favored by powerful political figures or countries. The United States – and the New York Times – learned this lesson during the run-up to the war in Iraq when Iraqi exile groups arranged for supposed witnesses to approach U.S. officials and journalists with information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Similar questions are already being raised about the key Hariri-case witness Saddik.
This risk of investigators accepting questionable testimony from dubious sources is highest when the allegations are directed against countries whose leaders are already held in disdain – as was the case with Iraq and is now the case with Syria. With almost everyone ready to believe the worst, few investigators or journalists are willing to endanger their reputations and careers by demanding a high level of proof. It’s easier to go with the flow. In the Hariri case, the chief U.N. investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, found himself under intense international pressure that some observers compared to those of Hans Blix in early 2003.

Consortium News (United States)

The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report”, by Robert Parry , Consortium News, October 23, 2005.