BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Syria is trying to obstruct the U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanon”s Rafik Hariri, but it will not succeed, the head of the U.N. commission into the killing of the former prime minister said in remarks published Thursday.
Detlev Mehlis was speaking of Syria”s repeated television broadcasts of a Syrian witness to the commission who recanted his testimony, claiming he had been bribed to give false evidence by the son of Hariri, Lebanese legislator Saad Hariri. Hariri”s aides have denied the allegation.
In a rare briefing to Lebanese newspapers, Mehlis said this week”s TV appearances by the witness, Husam Taher Husam, was a Soviet-style campaign against the U.N. commission, but it would not affect the investigation.
"I am used to this kind of propaganda," the German prosecutor was quoted by As-Safir newspaper as saying. "We are used to these examples in former Eastern European states."
Mehlis” remarks were a response to Syria”s attempt to discredit his commission, which issued an interim report in October that implicated the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the killing of Hariri in February.
Syria rejected the charge and has attempted to portray the report as a document "politicized" by the United States to punish Syria for its positions on Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians.
Next week the Mehlis commission is expected to question five senior Syrian officials in Vienna. The hearings are seen as a crucial stage of the investigation.
Syria”s own commission investigating Hariri”s murder presented Husam at a press conference in Damascus this week, saying that if he is the unidentified witness that the U.N. report relied on, then his retraction had dealt a "knockout blow" to its conclusions.
The newspaper An-Nahar quoted Mehlis as saying Husam was an important witness, but not the prime witness. The commission did not get the impression that Husam was lying when he testified before it, Mehlis told the newspaper.
"The commission has no reason to believe that what he said in Syria was true," Mehlis said of Husam”s TV broadcasts, according to An-Nahar. As-Safir quoted Mehlis as saying Husam might be summoned for questioning again.
Mehlis criticized the Syrian commission”s dealings with Husam, asking why it did not question Husam rather than present him to the media.
Mehlis said the Husam broadcasts were "unprofessional" for an investigating body and an attempt to obstruct the work of the U.N. investigation, according to As-Safir.
Syria”s ambassador to the United Nations, Fayssal Mekdad, called Wednesday for the commission to re-evaluate its interim findings. He also demanded that Lebanese authorities conduct their own investigation into the effort to mislead the investigation and give Mehlis "false information."
"Such things should not take place and we want the commission and the Lebanese authorities to follow closely these developments and to bring to justice all those who wanted to fabricate witnesses and to mislead the commission," Mekdad said in an interview at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Lebanese opponents of Syria suspect the country planted Husam to undermine the U.N. commission, a charge Syria denies.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari said the questioning of Syrian officials in Vienna would begin Dec. 5 and probably continue through Dec. 7. He also told reporters that the investigation needs to be extended because some witnesses have still not been interviewed, there are new witnesses, and some physical evidence has yet to be analyzed.
Mehlis told the newspapers he had no knowledge of the guarantees that Syria”s Foreign Ministry cited when it announced that Damascus had agreed to allow the five officials to appear before the commission in Vienna. The Foreign Ministry said Syria had received guarantees that its sovereignty and the rights of the officials would be respected.
Mehlis also said that Austria did not have the power to arrest the Syrians after the hearings. Syria was widely thought to have refused to allow its officials to be questioned in Lebanon, as the commission initially requested, because the Lebanese authorities have detained the suspects that Mehlis has named so far.