Across the Bay

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Mehlis Interview

There are several things I'd like to comment on, but I haven't been able to due to other commitments. However, I thought this interview with Detlev Mehlis was worth highlighting. It was conducted by the German magazine Stern and was translated to Arabic by As-Safir. I haven't been able to find the original German (if someone does, please send it to me), so I'll translate some excerpts from the Arabic translation. An English summary was published by Naharnet.

Stern: 24 hours before you presented your report before the Security Council at the UN in NY on the case of the assassination of PM Hariri, the publisher of a newspaper in Beirut, MP Gebran Tueni, was assassinated with a car bomb. Is there any link?

Mehlis: Of course. The killer wanted to silence a voice of opposition to Syria through the assassination of Gebran Tueni. Through this act, the goal was to threaten politicians and journalists and to scare the population in general. The goal was certainly to create chaos and to demoralize the country. That is what the killer sought, and they have succeeded in pushing Lebanon back a few months. Since I began with my cases, I've investigated many murder crimes, but I had never had a personal acquaintance with the victim. In Tueni's case, it's different. I knew him personally and found him very pleasant. He was one of more than 500 witnesses in the assassination that I had personally interviewed.

Stern: Were there indications that Tueni's life was in danger?

Mehlis: He was one of three people facing danger in Lebanon, and I wondered about the nonchalance with which he dealt with the threatening situation. We knew about a hit list prepared by the Syrians, and Tueni's name was at the top of the list. When I saw the names, I asked the Lebanese liaison officer to inform Tueni immediately and warn him. Tueni did seek safety and went to Paris, like Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri, and other Lebanese political personalities whose names were on the hit list. After being away for several months, Tueni returned for 12 hours to Lebanon, during which time he was assassinated. I learned of Tueni's assassination in the morning at my hotel in NY where a Lebanese security officer approached me and whispered in my ear: "did you hear about Gebran Tueni?!" At first I was shocked, then I went back to preparing my report before submitting it to the UN. I asked myself, "how could this have taken place?" and "why would someone do something like this?" The answer to my question was simple: the assassination of Tueni was a personal message for me and the members of the Investigative Commission. They wanted to tell us the following: you can do whatever you like, it won't make a difference. You can write however many reports you like, we will continue despite everything.

Stern: Did you receive direct threats?

Mehlis: Yes. I was surrounded by bodyguards as much as possible, but the bad feeling was still there of course. When I used to pass by a truck in Beirut, I used to ask myself: why didn't it blow up?!

Stern: Syria tried to belittle your popularity, did that affect you?

Mehlis: I found somethings rather amusing and funny. People read and hear things but nobody takes it seriously. I heard about being invited on a yacht and sipping $1200 wine, or about my father being a member of the CIA, or that my mother was Jewish and buried in the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. All this is rubbish, my mother is a Protestant Christians and is alive and well in Berlin.

Stern: How did you arrive at accusing the Syrians?

Mehlis: Just like with the "La Belle" case, where we got information from the archives of the East German intelligence services. But the investigation in Lebanon was exciting, especially after the testimony of Abdel Halim Khaddam. It was really a surprise. Khaddam is no ordinary person. He was Vice President for 20 years. Someone in his position possesses a lot of information, which he revealed to an Arab station with credibility. That confirms what the international investigators have been able to reach, and it was really a surprise!

Stern: You have heard the testimony of a number of Syrian officials, and have asked to hear the testimony of President Bashar Asad. Have the Syrians cooperated with your request?

Mehlis: We're waiting. We have asked to hear the Syrian President's testimony in Damascus, as the Syrians have said. It remains for the Syrian government to make that decision. Its position would indicate whether it's willing to cooperate positively or not.

Stern: You mentioned in your report in NY that the investigation into the Hariri case might take years, and the Belgian prosecutor who's succeeding you only has 6 months. Do you expect to return later to follow up on this case?

Mehlis: First my colleague will continue his assignment, and after that we should wait and see when he decides the investigation is over. He may reach quick conclusions in this case, far quicker than I expected.

Mehlis' interpretation of the Tueni murder as a message to the UNIIIC fits with Michael Young's and my interpretation. Not too long ago, the Syrians, through a fake pro-Syrian group, have also threatened Brammertz. It was in this context, with the Syrians feeling emboldened that the Khaddam bombshell came to deflate them and reinvigorate the investigation.

Bashar is still pathetically trying to figure out how to present his being interrogated to his people, after promising them that he would "not bow down" to anyone, and how this was a matter of national sovereignty and dignity. So, as Feris Khishen noted, we are likely to see an escalation in Lebanon aimed at covering this latest humiliation. The attempts in Jeddah and Sharm el-Sheikh only highlighted the limits of any Arab face-saving compromise, especially in light of the brutal response it received from France, the US, and Britain, which pushed the Saudis and the Egyptians to reassert that they had no intention to interfere with the investigations. Yesterday, Saud al-Faysal said Saudi Arabia had urged Syria to co-operate with the UN probe "without reservations."

So now, having seen that no one is willing (or able, anyway) to lift a finger on his behalf, Bashar is selling it as giving the UNIIIC audience, but not really being interrogated!

Supposedly, according to the Elaph article linked above, he's floating hints that he may be willing to "cooperate" if he and his inner circle (Asef and Maher) are spared. Hence, he allowed Ghazaleh and the junior officers to be interrogated. So he's trying to sell that as a "ceiling." (L'Orient-Le Jour reported a couple of days ago that the Egyptians and the Saudis reportedly told him that they couldn't move to protect him personally without him at least admitting guilt and coughing up some guilty parties.) However, the international reaction has been to let the investigation reach its "ultimate conclusions," and thus Mubarak finds himeslf cornered, with very little he can do for Bashar, because he cannot appear to be meddling with the investigation, nor can he tell Bashar not to cooperate. In fact, he has told him that he had to cooperate. The problem is, Bashar knows that if he does, there are no guarantees he won't hang. (Even Seniora after meeting with Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh came out saying that "we don't interfere in the work of the investigation.") I.e., no go. But this is a situation of his own making, so there's little that can be done for him even if Mubarak wanted to. Moreover, especially after the Khaddam revelations, it's very difficult to sell this kind of cover-up. It's way too late for this kind of charade. Besides, as Mehlis said, wrapping this thing up may now come much sooner than we thought.