BEIRUT (AFP) – Syria has ordered the arrest of 33 people over false testimony given in the UN-backed probe into the assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Rafik Hariri, a general held over the killing and his lawyers said.
Jamil Sayyed, the former head of Lebanon’s security services, said the top investigating judge in Damascus had issued arrest warrants “against judges, security officers, politicians, journalists and other Lebanese, Arab and foreign officials and individuals.”
Among those named in the warrants is Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who led the early stages of the UN investigation into Hariri’s 2005 assassination in a massive bombing, Sayyed said in a weekend statement.
Lebanon’s National News Agency said the Lebanese defendants include the head of Lebanon’s police, Ashraf Rifi, deputy Marwan Hamadeh, and top prosecutor Saeed Mirza.
Fassih Achi, one of Sayyed’s attorneys in Damascus, confirmed arrest warrants had been issued, adding the case was being handled in a “secret fashion”.
The warrants are sure to strike a blow to relations between Damascus and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — son of the slain leader — who has sought in the past year to mend fences with Syria, observers said.
They also come with tensions high in the country over unconfirmed reports the UN tribunal is set to indict members of Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, in connection with Hariri’s murder.
“This is a shocking development in terms of relations between the prime minister and the Syrian leadership,” Oqab Sakr, a deputy in Hariri’s pro-Western parliamentary majority, said on Monday,
Samir al-Jisr, another deputy, said the warrants had no legal basis in Lebanon and were clearly politically motivated.
“By doing this, the Syrians are trying to pressure the government to change its position on the UN tribunal,” Jisr said. “But we cannot back down on the tribunal, even if we wanted to.”
Another Syrian attorney involved in the case, Hussameddin Habash, denied the warrants were politically motivated.
“Syrian authorities are not linked to this case,” he told AFP.
Several observers said the warrants carried no legal weight in Lebanon as the crime in question took place on Lebanese soil and the complainant as well as most of the defendants are Lebanese.
Sayyed in his complaint alleged the UN probe was based on fabricated testimony aimed at implicating Syria and its supporters in Lebanon in Hariri’s killing.
Damascus has consistently denied any involvement in the assassination and last month, in a stunning about-turn, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he had been wrong to point the finger at Syria.
Sayyed was one of four security generals who served four years in prison on suspicion of involvement with the murder. All four were released last year for lack of evidence.
He filed his complaint in Damascus last October on grounds that five of the defendants are Syrians and because Lebanese officials refused to consider the case, referring it to the UN-backed court.