Surreal smile of the Berlin 'hit-man': Is Yasser Chreydi the man behind the 1986 German disco bombing? Robert Fisk in Sidon reports on his appearance in a Lebanese court

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The Independent Online
IN COURT, Yasser Chreydi wears a dead smile. He smiles at the Lebanese photographers who ask him to raise his manacled hands and give a two-fingered victory sign. He smiles at Ahmed Muallim, the black-robed Sidon judge. He even smiles at the burly security men with their M-16 rifles who stand on either side of him. The Palestinian's mouth is curved into a near-permanent smile when he gives evidence, although his eyes are glazed and expressionless. Is it a smile or a smirk? Is he a Libyan hit-man or a 'patsy', a fall guy for outside powers - which is what Yasser Chreydi wants us to believe? Either way, he has nothing to smile about.

It is all very surreal. In the cramped Sidon courtroom with its broken wooden shutters and its peeling ceiling, stands a Palestinian accused of masterminding the bombing of La Belle discotheque in Berlin on 5 April 1986, which led directly to the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi 10 days later - which in turn led to the murder of three Western hostages in Beirut, British lecturers Leigh Douglas and Philip Padfield and American librarian Peter Kilburn. The Belle bombing was itself thought to be Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's revenge for the shooting down of two Libyan jets by US fighters earlier the same year. The American air bombardment of Libya also marked the beginning of the final stage in the deterioration of the West's relations with Colonel Gaddafi, a breakdown which - if two Libyans sought by Western nations are responsible for the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 - led inexorably to Lockerbie. The ramifications are almost endless.

So you might think the little Sidon courtroom would have caught the world's attention this week. The German government is seeking the extradition of Yasser Chreydi for the bombing of La Belle - in which two American servicemen and a Turkish woman were killed - and has also issued an arrest warrant in his name for the 1984 murder of a Libyan dissident in Berlin, a 21-year old small-time drug trafficker called Mustafa Ashek.

Yet not a single Western diplomat turned up in Sidon this week to watch Chreydi discuss his work as a driver for the Libyan embassy in East Berlin and to hear him confirm that he was issued with a Libyan passport and diplomatic papers in a false name by the Libyan diplomats whom the West claims were behind the Belle bombing. The German ambassador in Beirut refused to discuss the case with the Independent because - in the words of his secretary - 'he doesn't know very much about it'. According to Chreydi's lawyer, and several Lebanese officials, the German extradition requests were sent to Beirut without sufficient documentation.

Nor did all go well in the Sidon court. The only prosecution witness in Lebanon, a Palestinian named Ghassan Ayoub who was accused with Chreydi of murdering Mustapha Ashek, was brought shrieking and struggling into the court, vomiting in front of the judge and then collapsing on the floor before insisting that he had never implicated Chreydi in Ashek's killing. 'I am sick,' he wailed as he stood barefoot beside Chreydi. 'I am a body without a brain. The statement is completely devoid of truth. When the police made me sign the paper, it was blank. There was nothing written on it. They said if I signed my name, I could go home. And look at me, I am still here in custody.'

Like Chreydi, Ayoub was born in the Ein Helweh refugee camp outside Sidon, where not only Palestine Liberation Organisation guerrillas but members of Abu Nidal's assassination group - currently loyal to Libya - have a base in Lebanon. The PLO have a long-standing and bloody feud with Abu Nidal's men; PLO men, Chreydi's family admitted, had killed two of his brothers. At the back of the court, a large number of unsmiling young men studied Ayoub's face. They later smiled encouragement at Chreydi.

In court, most of the evidence concerned Mustafa Ashek's murder - but neither judge nor defendant had doubts about why Chreydi was in custody. 'You know what they say,' Chreydi said. 'You know they like to claim Libya or Syria or Ahmed Jibril or the Hizbollah were to blame for the things in Berlin. But the biggest accusation against me leads to one thing - the explosion in the nightclub. I'm just a normal Palestinian. I've done nothing - not La Belle, not Ashek. Why do they accuse me?'

His smile vanished, just briefly, during cross-examination, when the prosecutor mentioned the name Ali Chanaa. Publicly, the German government refuses to talk about its evidence against Chreydi. But intriguing clues about Germany's witnesses leaked out in the court - and Chanaa's name was one of them. Much of the German evidence, it emerged, rests on his written statement although the court heard only that he was an Arab still living in Berlin.

In fact, Ali Chanaa is a Palestinian living in a Berlin safe house under the protection of German intelligence officers. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was an employee of the Stasi, the East German state security police, who - according to several reports in the west German press - acted as a double agent for both the Stasi and Western intelligence.

Chanaa allegedly knew of the plans for the Belle disco bombing and thus identified Chreydi as one of the conspirators. Chreydi agreed in court that he knew Chanaa as 'a Palestinian from Ein Helweh' but denied that he had ever boasted in front of Chanaa that he and Ayoub participated in Ashek's murder.

Mustapha Ashek was shot in the head with three bullets in Berlin on 30 July 1984, in a public park only 300 yards from Chreydi's home. Chreydi claimed he went to East Berlin the previous day and started work as a Libyan embassy driver, furnished with a Libyan passport under the false name of Yussef Salam, just after Ashek's murder. Did Chreydi know that Ashek was reputed to be a spy, the judge asked. 'I used to hear from Arab people that Ashek used to work with Zionist and American intelligence agencies,' he replied. Asked if he knew that Ashek was working against Libya, Chreydi responded: 'His country refused to accept his corpse after his death.'

It became clear, however, that Chreydi had connections with Libya long before he began working for the embassy. He had, he said, brought 'Arab volunteers' to Lebanon to fight the Israeli invaders - 'Zionists and Mossad', he called them - in 1982, then travelled back to Germany via Libya. He had brought the 'volunteers' into Lebanon via Syria, he said - at which point a court official was heard to mutter: 'Let's keep Syria out of this.'

Ali Chanaa, the Stasi agent, will never come to Lebanon. And Chreydi may never go to court in Berlin. There is no extradition treaty between Lebanon and Germany. Nor do the Germans - given their incomplete warrant and their ambassador's lack of interest - appear in any hurry to get their hands on Chreydi. The documents they have sent to Lebanon show clearly that Ali Chanaa, the former Stasi agent, is the main prosecution witness in the Belle bombing as well as the Ashek killing.

But an obvious question comes to mind. If Ali Chanaa knew in advance of the La Belle disco bombing, why did he not tip off the Western intelligence authorities? Or did he? His written evidence suggests that the Libyans chose La Belle from a target list of three Berlin discos popular with American troops - the others were called Stardust and Nashville - and that Chreydi, codenamed 'Nuri' by the Stasi, expressed his joy to Chanaa at the news of the bombing when he heard it on a car radio as they travelled together through East Berlin on 5 April 1986.

But if Chreydi is guilty, why has Chanaa not been charged? Was Chreydi a useful decoy for Chanaa, 'fingered' because the Lebanese civil war was still under way in July 1990, when the Belle bombing arrest warrant was issued - and at a time when no one would have imagined Chreydi would ever be found in Lebanon? Is that why the Germans seem so uninterested in the case now that Chreydi has, against all probability, been arrested? It is known that two German security men interviewed Chreydi in prison last January. But they never returned to Lebanon. As for the young men at the back of the courtroom, they left immediately the proceedings ended. If the Germans did not care about the outcome, perhaps the Libyans did.

The hearing continues on 19 April.

(Photograph omitted)