by Colum Lynch
A Lebanese police officer and U.N. investigators unearthed extensive circumstantial evidence implicating the Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, according to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission's findings are based on an elaborate examination of Lebanese phone records. They suggest Hezbollah officials communicated with the owners of cell phones allegedly used to coordinate the detonation that killed Hariri and 22 others as they traveled through downtown Beirut in an armed convoy, according to Lebanese and U.N. phone analysis obtained by CBC and shared with The Washington Post. The revelations are likely to add to speculation that a U.N. prosecutor plans to indict members of Hezbollah by the end of the year.
The work of the commission, whose mandate has expired, has been handed over the U.N. Special Tribunal, which will carry out prosecutions. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah - who claims Israel killed Hariri - has made it clear that the group will not accept the U.N.'s prosecution of its members.
The CBC report says that the head of the U.N. tribunal, Daniel Bellemare, declined a request to comment, and other officials in his office did not respond to phone calls. A U.N. attorney warned the CBC that the organization would alert Canadian authorities that the news agency's had obtained privileged U.N. documents, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The Post.
The latest findings mark a major development in an investigation that has played out for more than five years, and which initially had implicated Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials. In October 2005, the U.N.'s prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, a German, issued a report saying that Hariri's assassination "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security forces." Mehlis's successors, Serge Brammertz of Belgium and Bellemare, a former Canadian justice official, have revealed virtually none of their findings to the public, saying that the evidence will be presented in a court of law.The CBC's reporting also uncovered an internal U.N. document indicating that a top Lebanese intelligence official, Col. Wissam al-Hassan, who serves as Lebanon's key liaison with the U.N. investigators, was considered by some U.N. sleuths as a potential suspect in Hariri's murder. Hassan oversaw security for Hariri at the time of the assassination but had taken the day off to take an examination at a university.
A confidential internal U.N. memo, dated March 10, 2008, prepared for the commission's top investigator, Garry Loeppky, said Hassan's "alibi is weak and inconsistent" and recommended that he be "investigated quietly" to determine whether he played a role in Hariri's killing. But the CBC report states that the commission's management "ignored the recommendation" to investigate Hassan.
Hassan declined a request to speak with CBC to discuss the allegations.
The report also faults the United Nations for misplacing a vital piece of evidence - a complex analysis of Lebanese phone records that allegedly pinpointed the phones used by Hariri's killers - in the early months of the investigation. It also criticizes the U.N. commission for failing to provide sufficient security for a key Lebanese officer, Col. Wissam Eid, who was killed after helping the U.N. unravel the crime mystery.
Eid, a former student of computer engineering, had conducted a review of the call records of all cellphones that had been used in the vicinity of the Hotel St. George, where Hariri's convoy was bombed. He quickly established a network of "red" phones that had been used by the hit squad. He then established links with other small phone networks he suspected of being involved in planning the operation. He traced all the networks back to a landline at Hezbollah's Great Prophet Hospital in South Beirut, and a handful of government-issued cell phones set aside for Hezbollah. "The Eid report was entered into the U.N.'s database by someone who either didn't understand it or didn't care enough to bring it forward. It disappeared," according to the CBC.
It would be another year and a half before a team of British investigators, working for the U.N., discovered Eid's paper and contacted him. Eight days later, Eid was killed in a car bomb. "Lebanon gave Eid a televised funeral and at the UN inquiry there was outrage as well," according to CBC. "But mixed with shame."
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