Syrian president Bashar Assad has gone back full circle to the arguments he put forward a year ago when the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri came uncomfortably close to his inner circle.
“If any Syrian is found implicated in the assassination,” he told France 2 TV on Tuesday, March 20 (and CNN last year)”, he will be tried by a Syrian not an international court.”
Furthermore, “anyone with a hand in the case would be considered a traitor under Syrian law.” And, for good measure: “…his punishment will be greater than any sentence issued by another court. We won’t give up our sovereignty,” Assad declared
This was a reference to the UN-appointed international tribunal for trying the suspects in the Hariri murder.
Asked by the French interviewer about accusations of Syria’s involvement in the crime, the president said: “No one can hurl accusations without any evidence, be it President Chirac or any other persons.”
And in a sly dig at the French president, he remarked: Chirac’s desire to isolate Syria “hasn’t led to positive results.”
DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Bashar Assad’s show of bravado is just that; his situation vis-a-vis the inquiry has suddenly plunged. The evidence he trusted was missing, may be missing no longer.
Wednesday, March 22, the chief UN investigator, Serge Brammertz, briefed the UN Security Council on his progress and requested another year’s extension of his mandate.
Later, he said: “We have a clearer idea of the political context in which the crime occurred. We believe …that the motive is most likely linked to his political activities.”
Tthe UN investigator spoke confidently. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that his mention for the first time of a political context indicated a serious breakthrough in the inquiry.
On March 6, Brammertz returned from a visit to Riyadh, which was described “as part of his mission to gather information on the Hariri assassination.”
A full confession for full immunity
He met with secretary general of the Saudi national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and the head of Saudi General Intelligence, Prince Muqren bin Abdulaziz.
His talks in Riyadh were no fishing expedition; the Belgian investigator went to collect a piece of solid evidence waiting for him at Saudi intelligence about Jamil Sayed, the former head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, who has been held behind bars in Beirut central prison for more than a year, with four other suspects, three Lebanese secret service officers and the former head of the Lebanese presidential guard.
Before his Saudi trip, Brammertz received a message from Jamil Sayed’s lawyer that was addressed to him and the US, Saudi, French and British ambassadors in Beirut. Sayed’s state of health was declining after several heart attacks, and he was now willing to spill what he knew about the Hariri murder. The UN investigator was asked to pay him a visit in his cell.
According to our sources, Brammertz heard this proposition from the former security chief.
Jamil Sayed offered a full confession of his role in the murder in return for full immunity against prosecution. He was willing to name the individual who gave the order to kill Hariri, the mastermind who plotted the massive explosion of the victim’s convoy, in which 22 people died, and the source of the instructions to wipe out traces of the perpetrators after the event.
Sayed stipulated that he must not be implicated in the plot.
He told the UN official that his information came from three sources:
1. His close personal relations with the Gen. Abu Ghazale, head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon at the time of the murder. Through this connection, the former Lebanese security chief had procured the identities of the conspirators in the Syrian regime and intelligence.
Saudi intelligence offers corroboration
2. His close personal ties with the Lebanese intelligence chiefs of that period – in particular, General Raymond Azar, then head of Lebanese military intelligence, and Gen. Mustapha Hamadan, then head of the Lebanese presidential guard, who also acted as the pro-Syrian president Emil Lahoud‘s strong arm.
3. A few days before the assassination, on Feb. 15, 2005, Sayed said he was approached by Syrian intelligence officers with orders to post agents and telescopic surveillance cameras in an apartment at Ain Mareisa opposite the St. Georges Hotel in Beirut. It overlooked the spot where the Hariri convoy was to be bombed.
Sayed told Brammertz, that he complied with the Syrian officers’ orders but, on his own initiative, added video cameras to the set-up in the apartment. They filmed the scene prior to the assassination, when it was happening and during the following week.
The former Lebanese official assured the UN investigator that these tapes were in his possession and only he knew their hiding place.
He assured Brammertz that the perpetrators of the murder showed up clearly on the tapes; so did the instigators who came on the scene later to clear away any telltale clues. According to Sayed, their identities had not come to light in the investigation so far.
If the UN inquiry met his terms, the former Lebanese security chief would hand the tapes over.
After his interview with the suspect, the UN investigator went to see Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Lebanese politician and leader of the anti-Syrian 15 March bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and prime minister Fouad Siniora.
Both advised him to reject Sayed’s proposition. They said Sayed was trying to buy his way out of being prosecuted for his role in the Hariri murder on the cheap, by giving up a small fragment of what he knew. The two Lebanese politicians thought Brammertz should keep Sayed hanging on a string until he volunteered solid proof which implicated Bashar Assad personally and his close family in the crime.
They also advised the UN investigator to ask Saudi intelligence for assistance on this point. He followed their advice and with the information he obtained in Riyadh, DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s sources expect Brammertz to pay a second visit to his informant in Beirut jail very soon.