BEIRUT: A senior U.N. envoy advised former Premier Rafik Hariri to leave Lebanon three days before he was assassinated, after Syrian President Bashar Assad used “angry and threatening” language to describe the Lebanese leader, judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon were told Monday.
“According to Hariri, [U.N. envoy Terje Roed-]Larsen said that the language of Assad toward Hariri was very angry and very threatening and he advised him, as we did before, that he should leave Lebanon,” former Economy Minister and Hariri adviser Marwan Hamade told the U.N.-backed tribunal during his fifth day of testimony.
Hamade said Hariri informed him of the conversation with Roed-Larsen on the eve of his assassination.
Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat, was appointed U.N. representative in 2004 to ensure compliance with Security Council Resolution 1559, which ordered the departure of foreign troops from Lebanon. Syria had a substantial troop presence at the time.
He had met with Assad before arriving in Lebanon, and insisted on meeting Hariri before flying out of the country, Hamade said.
Hamade, who survived a car bombing in October 2004, also told judges in The Hague that Syria had ordered the probe into his assassination attempt shut down. He described the broad intimidation campaign against Hariri in the run-up to his assassination as a “gradual descent to martyrdom.”
The STL is trying in absentia five members of Hezbollah in connection with the Valentine’s Day bombing in Downtown Beirut in 2005 that killed Hariri and 21 others and led to street protests that ended Syria’s tutelage over Lebanon two months later.
But prosecutors have increasingly focused in recent days on Syria’s role in the run-up to the assassination, in a surprising change of tack after years of abandoning the Syria angle.
At the hearing, Hamade blamed Syria’s military intelligence chief in Lebanon for shutting down the inquiry into his own assassination attempt, which happened days after his bloc opposed the extension of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term, a key demand in 2004 by Damascus.
Hamade described a conversation he had with Gen. Marwan Zein, Lebanon’s ISF head at the time, who informed him that Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh had ordered the Lebanese official to end the probe into Hamade’s car bombing.
“He told me that Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh called him and told him this investigation is not needed,” Hamade said. Ghazaleh reportedly told Zein that the investigation was a waste of time because either Israel was responsible or Hamade had orchestrated the bombing himself.
Zein was removed from his post as ISF director shortly after Hariri’s resignation from government in September 2004 and made Lebanon’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Hamade said the official Lebanese investigation into the bombing that targeted him only consisted of a five-minute statement to a police investigator, after which the investigation abruptly stopped, highlighting the fearful atmosphere that prevailed in Lebanon when it came to investigating political assassinations.
This was despite being told by then-Defense Minister Elias Murr that CCTV footage depicting the vehicle used in the attack had been obtained, and investigations pointed to a garage in the southern suburbs of Beirut as the source of the fake car plate used on the vehicle.
A sketch of the man who spied on Hamade’s residence before the attack was also prepared and cigarette butts that he had supposedly used were found in the vicinity.
Hamade said that Hariri as well as his ally, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, had interpreted the assassination attempt as a warning to them to avoid an increasingly independent track from Syria.
But the MP said Hariri believed his clout in international and Arab arenas would protect him from outright assassination. “He used to believe and say that they will not dare to do something like that,” Hamade said. “Such an act is too big and too dangerous for them.”
Hamade said that Jumblatt and Hariri feared for their own security, though “not enough,” adding that Hariri’s security detail had been reduced from 40 personnel to eight in the aftermath of his resignation.
“Prime Minister Hariri told Jumblatt: ‘Which one of us do you think will be targeted first?’” Hamade said.
Hamade described the assassination attempt against him and the wounds he sustained in the attack, including two brain hemorrhages, burns and wounds in his face, chest and leg. Prosecutors showed a grisly photo of a bloodied Hamade immediately after the bombing.
Hamade’s testimony has focused on two meetings between Hariri and Assad in which the Syrian leader ordered the Lebanese premier to acquiesce to the controversial Lahoud extension, as well as on the fallout from Resolution 1559 and the formation of the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon.
Assad had allegedly threatened to “break” Lebanon over Hariri and Jumblatt’s heads if they did not accept Syria’s demands.
Hariri believed that Syria would allow him to form a national unity government after the Lahoud extension to calm tensions in the country, Hamade said. But Syria repeatedly blocked efforts to form such a government, leading to Hariri’s resignation and a vicious campaign accusing the former premier of betraying Syria and the “resistance,” Hamade said.
Hamade said the campaign, orchestrated by Syria and its allies in Lebanon, continued to target Hariri despite his acquiescence to the Lahoud re-election because he had his sights on the 2005 parliamentary elections.
He said that Hariri was confident his bloc would gain a majority in the polls, ousting the pro-Syrian bloc in Parliament.