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Der Spiegel Tries Again

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut

The headline was dramatic. The strongly pro-Israel German weekly Der Spiegel offered bold “new information” it claimed came from secret sources and documents, stemming  “inside investigative sources who wefromre working on the Rafic Hariri assassination. Der Spiegel’s breakthrough ‘exclusive’ with ‘new evidence pointing to those who were guilty.

The headline screamed

BYE-BYE, HARIRI!
UN Report Links Syrian Officials to Murder of Former Lebanese Leader

By Erich Follath et al.

Publication date? October 24, 2005, nearly four years ago.
Yes, that particular Spiegel excloo came back in 2005. Syria was accused in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri of being the ‘real’ assassins. An international anti-Syria campaign was promptly launched by the Bush Administration and Israel to demonize its government.

Fast forward to the tense run-up right now, before the June elections. This weekend, a new exclusive, secret, investigative report showing the real, real assassins was published by the same weekly, Der Spiegel.  Same author. Same editor. New target.

This time Der Spiegel’s Erich Follath claims that the international committee investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister martyr Rafik Hariri has reached “surprising new secret conclusions”, this time pointing to Hezbollah.

The new Der Spiegel head line (May 24, 2009)

BREAKTHROUGH IN TRIBUNAL INVESTIGATION
New Evidence Points to Hezbollah in Hariri Murder

By Erich Follath

The German weekly claims the target is now Hezbollah after the Tribunal pressured the Lebanese government to release four Lebanese Generals last month for lack of evidenceamid a swelling outcry in the international legal and human rights community.  After the generals’ release, more questions are being raised such as why the four Generals were never charged if there was inadequate evidence,  or release years ago or given a bail bond, house arrest, or allowed to face their accusers or even see the supposed evidence against them. The credibility of the Tribunal diminished with each day the four remained jailed.

In many respects the 2009 Der Spiegel article is similar to the 2005 piece: “There are signs that the investigation has yielded new and explosive results”, “Spiegel has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn”, “Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion, this time that it was not the special forces of Syria, but instead special forces of Hezbollah that planned and carried out Hariri’s Feb. 2005 murder.”

As in 2005, Der Spiegel claims the investigators “apparently want to hold back the information that they have been aware of for about a month”. Der Spiegel asserts that “According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the telephone numbers involved [by the assassins] apparently belong to the ‘operational arm’ of Hezbollah.” Without an apology for the hatchet job on Syrian President Bashar Assad four years ago, Der Speigel’s  the new article adds demurely that President Assad is no longer a suspect.  “Hardly anything suggests anymore that he was personally aware of the murder plot or even ordered the killing”, Follath writes.

Ricocheting around Lebanon’s capitol and on the Internet are comments questioning the timing of the Spiegel report as aimed to cause maximum damage to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Who was the supposed source of the ‘leaks’ and why now, since the UN investigative office has taken great pains not to leak or politicize its work. In contrast to former investigator  Detlev Mehlis, Hasan Nassrallah has never been known to order the killing of rival politicians. The 2005-2006 accusations against Syria were shown to be fallacious and based on a false witness. Der Spiegel has a rumored long history with Israeli intelligence, the “key” eight phones were never in the hands of Hezbollah but rather a Muslim Sunni organization in Trablus as Detlev Mehlis claimed to have documented.

One claim that I find very odd is the suggestion that a senior Hezbollah member would call his girl friend on a secure line was ‘on duty”.  Der Spiegel’s girl friend telephone call story is a bit awkward and very un-Hezbollah. I know of two cases where female students at AUB became quite angry when their Hezbollah boyfriends up and disappeared from campus and did not even call them for a whole month.  When they returned “from duty” to resume classes both tried to explain that they could not make contact while ‘working’.

Puzzling also is the German weekly’s claim that it  learned “from sources close to the tribunal” and “verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn.”  Der Spiegel does not make it clear if it was its source or Der Spiegel’s editors who examined these documents. If the latter, did the source to take these documents outside the very tight security building in The Hague? Surely, the investigation should be able to track this so-called source.

No evidence is offered by Der Spiegel for any of its “revelations” such as Hezbollah members who supposedly trained in Iran, bought phones, “two men who report only to their superior” (who else would they report to?) etc.  How does Der Spiegel know all these secret things and why not offer some proof? How does Der Spiegel know, for example who reports to whom in Hezbollah?  Does some of this highly secret information come to Der Spiegel via recently apprehended Israeli spy cells—passed on from the three Israeli intelligence agencies known to be here in Lebanon or sources connected with them?

Too volatile for Lebanon’s Campaign?

So far none of Lebanon’s political parties is taking Der Spiegel’s story as credible. MP Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party currently allied with the pro-US March 14th majority, commenting on the Der Spiegel article,  warned in a Sunday speech dedicated to announce his Chouf candidates, that the article is “the game of nations that could, God forbid, derail justice and use it for things that we don’t believe in.”

The Saad Hariri-led Future Movement refused to comment on the article.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawsi Salloukh labeled it as “totally false and all lies”, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem challenged Der Spiegel and the author of the report to show evidence. “This article is politicized and reminds us of (former international investigator) Detlev Mehlis’s practices,” Moallem added. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the report “was nothing but a new attempt to sow sedition among the Lebanese….This is a media fabrication that only lacked the stamp: ‘Made in Israel’,” Berri said.

Hezbollah Media Relations Office issued a statement on Sunday in which it dismissed allegations published by Der Spiegel and broadcast by Al-Arabiyya Channel saying that it is nothing less than “police fabrications”. The statement said, “It’s not the first time that a magazine or newspaper aimed at publishing such fabrications and previously Kuwaiti paper Al-Siyasa has repeatedly published such reports along with other dailies.” The statement continued “It is nothing more than police fabrications cooked in the same black room that has been keen on fabricating such stories for over four years regarding the Syrians and the four Lebanese officers and others.” The statement added that “publishing this report by Der Spiegel and promoting for it by Al-Arabiyya is suspicious in its timing and its political and psychological exploitation especially for two reasons: First it is a pure fabrication aimed at influencing the election campaign in Lebanon on one side, and to deflect attention from the news about the dismantling of spy networks working for Israel on other…. The report comes just two weeks ahead of a June 7 parliamentary election in Lebanon.”

The German Embassy in Beirut claims not to have heard about the article and would have no comment.

Radiya Ashouri, Spokeswoman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) says for the record:  “We don’t know where the Der Spiegel magazine did get their information from and we don’t know where they brought this story from. No one in the prosecutor’s office has spoken to the German magazine about anything. We have a clear policy of not leaking any information about the tribunal through media outlets, and we have been stressing this since the beginning. When Der Spiegel spoke about Bellemar’s spokesperson, they meant me. They emailed me and asked a few questions. My answer was that the tribunal does not deal with investigation files through the media and adopts the policy of direct announcement by the part of Mr. Bellemar.If we had something to say, we would have said it directly, not through media outlets.”

FRANKLIN LAMB works with the Sabra Shatila Foundation in Beirut.  He is reachable at:  fplamb@sabrashatila.org.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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