Robert Fisk: Setback for inquiry into Hariri assassination

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time it all looked so simple. UN investigators would find out who assassinated the former prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February last year, arrest the suspects and - with the help of the Lebanese judiciary - put them on trial.

Four prominent Lebanese security officials - one of whom had planted evidence at the scene of the crime - were arrested. And the witness who handed over the names was none other than a former Syrian secret policeman called Mohamed Zuhair Siddiq. Then it turned out that Mr Siddiq, who was living in France, might have been pulling a fast one on Detlev Mehlis, the German chief investigator. Mr Mehlis' successor, the Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, called for Mr Siddiq to be extradited to Beirut for questioning. Which is where it all started to unravel.

For a French court has released the Syrian ex-spook on the grounds that he might face execution if returned to Lebanon and found guilty of involvement in the Hariri killing. The French specifically called the Lebanese to see if they could obtain guarantees that Mr Siddiq would not be hanged or shot but the Lebanese prosecutor general, Saed Mirza, would give no such guarantee.

Thus Lebanon's pride took precedence over the opportunity of seizing a man whom many here believe was intimately involved in the events leading to Hariri's death.

The French President, Jacques Chirac was a personal friend of Hariri and France wanted to co-operate with the UN. Mr Siddiq remains under "surveillance". But that's all.

So is it true that Mr Brammertz is now on his way to Paris to question Mr Siddiq himself? And can he force Mr Siddiq to answer his questions? Can the French? It seems not.

There is a growing suspicion that the four Lebanese security officials linked to the murder might now have a claim to be released since their alleged accuser is not only on the run but apparently safe from prosecution. Lawyers for the four imprisoned pro-Syrian officials in Lebanon - General Jamil Sayyed, General Ali Haj, Raymond Azar and Mustafa Hamdan - are also planning a trip to France to talk to the "witness" whose "evidence" put their clients behind bars. As one of Hariri's former close friends said: "It's all bad news."