Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Plot Thickens: Mehlis' Witness No. 1 Exposed?

Okay, so this should have the makings of a major scandal, but oddly nobody is mentioning it. Not even Charl Ayoub of Addiyar newspaper who would have a stake in such a story…Weird, very weird.

New TV, a not-so-trustworthy Lebanese satellite channel, aired a tabloid-ish report during its evening news yesterday (Nov. 22) about a man it claims is the first ‘witness’ cited in the Mehlis report (…officially the ‘Report of the International Independent Commission Established Persuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1595,’ published on October 21, 2005, see points 96-102 as relates to this witness). Whereas doubts have been cast on the veracity of witness no. 2—a certain ‘Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik’—the remaining certainty regarding Syrian culpability in Hariri’s murder hinges solely on the man who became known in media-jargon as ‘the masked witness’; now allegedly identified by New TV as ‘Hosam Taher Hosam.’

[For the record, I did not view the segment myself, but read an extensive description of it that appeared in an Arabic newspaper.]

Add the word ‘allegedly’ where appropriate to the following:

Mr. Hosam is a Syrian Kurd, born in 1975 in Tel Al-Hefzeiz in the Hasaka Province, Syria. His mother’s name is Zainab Hassan, and his employer is supposedly ‘Syrian Intelligence.’ He claims to have worked directly under people like Assef Shawkat and Rustum Ghazaleh.

Mr. Hosam contacted New TV shortly after Ghazi Kanan’s death. It should be noted that New TV was the station that broadcast a story about Kanan confessing to corruption charges during his ‘interview’ with Detlev Mehlis. Kanan cited this story in the phone call he made to a radio station shortly before committing suicide. [Note: I am one of the few pundits who maintain that it was in fact a suicide brought about by depression, and criticism over corruption charges. This is not where most Syria-Lebanon observers stand.] The act by which Mr. Hosam contacted the television station after it had aired what it claimed was a scoop about the Mehlis investigation would make rational sense.

I have been apprehensive about the ‘evidence’ being cited against Syria and I first mentioned this in a column ‘Who Killed Hariri?’ back in September. To my way of thinking, things just didn’t add up. I threw in a further twist after the Mehlis report came and said the following in another column:

“The Mehlis report came out last week, and it was spun - by the Mehlis team itself and by other interested parties - as an indictment of the Syrian regime. The actual evidence cited by Mehlis to prove this claim is flimsy at best. It all revolved around the testimony of two witnesses; one thoroughly discredited to the point where he has been arrested as a probable source of disinformation, and the second witness falls under the category of "too good to be true." The only compelling part of the report was the excellent analysis of the cell phone communications that probably were related to the Hariri murder. But there are two ways to look at this information: either to find any way, even if far-fetched, to pin it on the Syrians, or to look at the political and cultural context within which these communications took place. Based on what came out in the Mehlis report, this conspiracy was plotted and hatched in a Sunni Lebanese bubble, surrounding the northern Lebanese town of Trablous.”

In its news story, New TV broadcast snippets of recorded conversations with Mr. Hosam, in which his account mirrors the information attributed to ‘witness no. 1’ by the Mehlis report, including the ‘expunged’ part identifying the role of Assef Shawkat. New TV claims that he shared most of this information before the Mehlis report was published.

Witness no. 1 and Mr. Hosam claim to be have been in too many critical places, and claim to have witnessed too many incriminating circumstances, to be true by my book. Maybe intelligence plots unfold neatly in Le Carre novels, but the ‘business’ is certainly far too clumsy and capricious in the real world.

Furthermore, witness No. 1’s testimony against Gen. Jamil Al-Sayyed, according to a source familiar with it, sounded ‘clownish.’

One interesting addition that Mr. Hosam makes and that is not cited in the Mehlis report is that he took 60,000 USD in cash and went to Syria to pay-off several Syrian intelligence officers such as Samih Al-Qasha’ami in return for documents and recordings of the trysts that plotted for Hariri’s murder. Al-Qasha’ami—once cited as a Lt. Col. according to a published report —had supposedly been a Syrian intelligence officer in the Lebanese region of Talia. What is the origin of this money? Why was Qasha’ami identified as a target for recruitment? Wouldn’t he have alerted the Syrians about Mr. Hosam? And wouldn’t this lead the Syrians to publish Mr. Hosam’s ‘life story’ as they did with Zuhir Saddik?

Furthermore, New TV suggests in a statement published on its website that Mr. Hosam offered to sell his story for a lot of money, and that he made this offer to them as well as to several other media outlets.

The weakness in Mr. Hosam’s claims are the following: how and why would the Mehlis team allow their star witness to roam around Beirut—unprotected and unmonitored—while he tries to peddle his story for fame and money? And could Mr. Hosam be a Syrian plant out to discredit the ‘real’ witness no. 1? If that were the case, then the Syrians should have known the content of the Mehlis report even before its publication, and coached their ‘plant’ to keep his ‘legend’ synonymous with the account of witness no. 1. But how would the Syrians gain access to such information?

There is an interesting story from ‘Syrian sources’ (i.e. Syrian intelligence) in Elaph authored by Bahiyyeh Mardini from Damascus that claims that Marwan Hmadeh, Junbulat’s sidekick, coached—as part of a larger plot—witness no. 2, Zuhir Saddik, and instructed him on what to say to Mehlis.

I think Hosam Taher Hosam was similarly coached, but by whom?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the New TV story be taken somewhat seriously if indeed Mr. Hosam gave the same spiel to the station that ended up in Mehlis’ report, even before its publication. I think there is more there to be explored, and I find this atmosphere of complete silence—in the rest of the Lebanese media and on blogs—unhealthy. I know, I know, I’m an awful person for suggesting that Mehlis was duped, and that this line of argument would inevitably get the Syrians off the hook. But I’m less certain today that the Asads performed this particular crime. And there is plenty more we need to know, and consider, because, those who killed Hariri may still be out there and plotting more mayhem and destruction.

PS: To save face, I should probably take out the flippant quip suspecting Junblat of Hariri’s murder that is mentioned in the intro to this blog. But that wouldn’t be intellectually honest; I did suspect Junmulat at one point in my research, and will publish my analyses soon. For the record, I believe I was mistaken about his role. But hey, a good rule of thumb when analyzing Lebanon is keeping Walid Beg near the top of the usual suspects list every time something bad happens.


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