May 15, 2015

Testimony of Dr Youssef: More background evidence on political events preceding the attack

This witness’ evidence is part of the first section of the second part of the Prosecutions’ case, which according to the Prosecution will show that this case is about a political assassination. The political background evidence is covering five themes: (i) the prime minister' s deteriorating relationship with Syria as a consequence of his goal to strengthen Lebanese autonomy; (ii) Syria's increasing resolve to exert control beyond mere influence over Lebanon internal affairs; (iii) the growing concerns voiced by the international community regarding external pressures bearing upon the political affairs of Lebanon; (iv) the evolution of an effective opposition movement in September 2004 in Lebanon of which Rafik Hariri was first a silent and then a more public participant; and (v) the prime minister' s status as an influential statesman in the Gulf region and beyond (see the transcript of 11 November 2014 for this explanation by the Prosecution of the contents of the political background evidence).

Background of Dr Youssef and his relationship with Hariri
Dr Ghazi El-Youssef (testimony of 10-12 and 20 March) has a background as an economist and is presently a Member of the Lebanese Parliament. He worked with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and as an advisor to the Minister of Finance Fouad Siniora, another Prosecution witness who has already testified. Dr Youssef continued to work as Hariri’s economic advisor in the years until Hariri’s assassination, working on privatisation and other economic projects. After the elections of 2000 Dr Youssef worked at the seat of the government and he was in charge of economic matters. Hariri and Dr Youssef met almost on a daily basis to discuss various issues, including economic issues in Lebanon, the electoral strategy and Hariri’s relationship with Syria. They discussed many times the obstacles hindering the economic development of Lebanon; according to the witness Hariri was a liberal in his vision for the economic future of Lebanon. An example of these obstacles were the blocking of energy and transport projects because of political interference and corruption.

[Dr Youssef testifying at the STL]

Syrian influence on electoral issues in Lebanon
For the elections of 2000 Dr Youssef was asked to be on the electoral list for Hariri, but Ghazi Kanaan did not want him on the list and Dr Youssef withdrew his candidacy. The Syrian regime was controlling electoral lists, and was imposing candidates in certain areas. Further, the electoral law was drafted by the Syrian regime, dividing the constituencies in away that would prevent Hariri from getting the majority in all different constituencies; this was known as the Ghazi Khanaan law. Hariri also faced opposition from Members of Parliament that were imposed on him by the Syrian regime. Further, the witness talks extensively about the political difficulties Hariri was facing, the imposition of a new cabinet on Hariri in 2003 by Rustom Ghazaleh and President Lahoud - which further reduced the political role of Hariri - , and the threats Hariri received from Damascus to change his position in relation to the extension of the mandate of President Lahoud. After President Lahoud’s term was extended for three years in 2004, Hariri decided not to form a new government as demanded by the Syrian regime. Upon Hariri’s resignation, Dr Youssef also resigned. The witness provides further details about the political ambitions of Hariri, and Hariri’s chances if he were to run for the 2005 elections. Dr Youssef thinks that the main reason for Hariri’s assassination is that he would have been very successful in the elections of 2005.

The witness also provides evidence that in December 2004 Mr. Ghassan Salameh, a former minister and adviser to the UN Secretary-General, warned Hariri that “the Syrians want his political assassination or otherwise." And he also told Hariri that “If you are going back to Lebanon to resist, to avoid political assassination, not to allow them to impose their candidates, then they will kill you." But Hariri went back to Beirut. The day of the assassination a meeting was planned in Parliament in order to discuss a draft electoral law.

Hariri's relationship with Hezbollah
The witness testifies about meetings between Hariri and Said Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, meetings that became more frequent after the attempted assassination of Marwan Hamade. About these meetings Hariri told the witness what's more important than keeping your friends close to you, you have to keep your enemies closer.” According to Dr Youssef, Hariri wanted to include Hezbollah in his vision for Lebanon. However, during cross-examination the witness admits that Hariri told him that "his meetings with Hezbollah and with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah were not6 progressing the way he wanted them to, for the sake of Lebanon and for the sake of running for elections and for the sake of giving the Lebanese back their decision."

Dr Youssef further confirms the close relationship between Hezbollah and Syria, the presence of the Syrian intelligence network everywhere in Lebanon, and the close cooperation between the Syrian intelligence and the Hezbollah security apparatus. The Prosecution will however not rely on this part of Dr Youssef’s evidence which according to the witness was “an analysis based upon my personal opinion, not based on facts, it was the reality as I describe it as we lived over the past years."

Taped conversation between Hariri, Ghazaleh and Charles Ayoub
A large part of the testimony of Dr Youssef deals with a recording of a conversation between Hariri, Rustom Ghazaleh (Director-General of the Syrina military intelligence in Lebanon), and Charles Ayoub (editor of Ad-Diyar newspaper and close to the Syrian regime). According to the Prosecution, the meeting occurred on 9 January 2005 at Hariri’s residence and office in Quraitem Palace in Beirut and was secretly recorded by Hariri’s chief of security, the late Mr Wissam El-Hassan, who provided the tapes to UNIIIC.

According to the witness, Mr Ayoub was present as an intermediary, to re-establish the confidence between Hariri and the Syrian regime. The witness identifies the voices of the men on the tape, and various excerpts of the tape are played, with Hariri and Ghazaleh talking about the relationship between Lebanon and Syria, the reform of the electoral law in Lebanon, and the government appointments. Hariri is stating that he’s “completely convinced that Lebanon cannot be ruled without Syria’s consent or Syria's will. Now perhaps the Lebanese should have a bigger role in ruling their country, et cetera, this is an issue that I believe Syria is also not against it. Any flaws in the relationship can be discussed quietly and amicably.” Dr Youssef gives his interpretation of what's being said, and according to him Hariri tries to tell the Syrians that there should be co-ordination, but that the Lebanese should play a more important role in governing their own country. According to the witness Hariri’s plan was to stop the interference of the Syrians in Lebanese affairs. Hariri was using diplomacy to promote for an electoral law based on the Taif agreement and wanted to become prime minister after the elections.

The Defence objected to Dr Youssef giving opinion evidence as to what was said on this tape recording. However, the Trial Chamber found that although Dr Youssef is not treated as an expert witness, he is a “contemporary political insider whose interpretation or opinion of what was being discussed could assist the Trial Chamber to evaluate the evidence”. The Trial Chamber also seemed very interested in Dr Youssef’s interpretation of the recording, as many questions were asked, and the witness provided a lot of details about the Lebanese political landscape at that time and the exact interpretation of what is said at the tape recording, of which the relevance for the criminal case still remains to be seen.

Evidence on communication equipment
In addition, on 13 March the Prosecution deals with the tendering into evidence of a number of documents that are claimed to show that the purchasers of the phones and SIM cards (that were used to communicate between the alleged perpetrators of the assassination of Hariri) were concealing the identities of the users by using false identities or the identities of other persons who were unaware of this (several of these persons gave statements to the Prosecution).

We would like to thank our intern Sivan Serbest for her valuable contribution to this blog.

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