Robert Fisk: Silent for too long, the witnesses to evil

If you want to spill the beans while in office, you have to do it in 'a personal capacity'
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A quote from the cops. I was in Oslo when I received the SMS on my Lebanese mobile phone from the country's Internal Security Forces, Lebanon's paramilitary ISF. "Dear citizen," it began - and I have to admit, I liked the assumption of Lebanese citizenship. "Starting March 15th, the Internal Security Forces will be dealing strictly with traffic contraventions. Be co-operative for your safety. The ISF."

Now I'm sure the "for your safety" bit was just a figure of speech; I would be safer in my car if I wore my seatbelt, wouldn't I? Was that why my driver Abed met me at Beirut airport strapped into his seatbelt for the first time? Or was there a threat? That in order to be "safe" I should be "co-operative"?

All the same, I like cops. They know what we journalists want to know (along, I suppose, with criminals whose own mentality, I suspect, has a lot in common with policemen and reporters). But in Lebanon these past few days, we've been learning quite a lot about what the cops know - or knew - about the past: like who killed the Lebanese Druze leader Kemal Jumblatt.

Jumblatt Senior - as opposed to his mercifully still living son Walid who is under constant threat of Syrian assassination - was murdered on 16 March 1977, shot dead in his car as he drove near his home in the Chouf mountains. We all suspected at the time that the Syrians were involved; Kemal had turned down an invitation to visit the late President Hafez el-Assad of Syria in Damascus to discuss the Lebanese civil war - the equivalent at that time, of refusing Henry VIII a divorce.

But now along comes my old friend General Issam Abu Zaki, former head of the Lebanese judicial police, to spill the beans. For General Abu Zaki - a man so generous he once gave away his much-loved worry beads because a female friend of mine was rash enough to admire them - turns out to have been the cop in charge of the Jumblatt murder case.

In 1977, an American car containing drugs had been discovered at Beirut port, the general has revealed in the Beirut daily An Nahar newspaper. But outside the gates of the port, the vehicle was stopped at a Syrian military checkpoint. The Lebanese judicial police later confirmed that a Syrian intelligence officer based in the Beirut suburb of Sin el-Fil - a major in rank - stated in writing that he was in possession of the car.

"A short time later," Abu Zaki writes, "the car made an appearance in the Chouf, lying in wait for Kemal Jumblatt as he headed ... to attend a party political meeting. As Jumblatt's car passed the American car, the latter pulled out and tailed the Druze leader's vehicle. The pursuing car had four people in it, two in civilian clothes, the other two in military uniforms. Upon leaving the town of Baaqleen, the suspect American vehicle intercepted Jumblatt's car.

"Kemal Jumblatt's bodyguards were bundled into the American vehicle, and two of the pursuers replaced them ... the two cars had barely travelled 900 metres when something happened that evidently took the abductors by surprise, for they braked suddenly, as evidenced by the tyre skid marks on the road left by Jumblatt's car. The sudden stop led to the American car crashing into the back of Jumblatt's car. At this moment the heinous crime took place."

Jumblatt was murdered with a shot in the head - his brains splashed over the morning newspaper he had been reading when he was ambushed - and the killers made their escape. From the knives found in Jumblatt's car, Abu Zaki and his cops suspected the attackers intended to take the Druze leader to a neighbouring Christian village where they would have cut his throat and thus provoked further atrocities in Lebanon's already two-year-old civil war. But Jumblatt struggled with the Syrians who were forced to shoot him on the spot.

Or so Abu Zaki surmises. Jumblatt's son Walid told me this week he believes this story to be true - just as did a Beirut flower seller called Abu Talib who reported to Abu Zaki back in 1977 that the Syrian killers had later stopped at a Hamra Street hotel in the city. So too, apparently, did the Lebanese judicial investigative judge, Hassan Qawass, who survived an abduction attempt and a missile attack on his Beirut home when he refused to drop the case. Alas, a "highly placed legal authority" in Lebanon was later suborned to close the Jumblatt file.

But now we know a little more about that 1977 murder and so Abu Zaki wonders whether we will also know the truth about the assassination last year of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri whose death is being investigated, in ever more lacklustre a fashion, it seems, by the UN. Yet it raises other, bigger questions.

Why, for example, don't cops and diplomats and statesmen come out with the facts at the time? Why do they wait till their retirement to blurt out the truth? Why did we only know the truth from the top about Vietnam after Robert McNamara had become a Grand Old Man of Letters? Why did we have to wait for decades to know that General Sir Douglas Haig lied in 1916? Why do we have to wait until 2006 to learn that we tortured Germans in 1946?

Well, just look at what has happened to John Evans, the US ambassador to Armenia who - while in office - told the truth about the Armenian holocaust, the genocide by the Ottoman Turks which killed one and a half million Armenian Christians in 1915. Before he was elected president, George W Bush promised the Armenians of America that he would acknowledge this genocide. Once in office, however, he caved in, gutlessly calling it a "tragedy" so that he wouldn't get his fingers burned by that wonderful democratic Nato ally - and would-be EU member - called Turkey.

But there was Ambassador Evans on 19 February this year telling Armenians in the Bay area of San Francisco that "as someone who has studied it, there's no doubt in my mind what happened. I think it is unbecoming of us, as Americans, to play word games here. I believe in calling things by their name. I will today call it the Armenian genocide".

The luckless but over-truthful ambassador has since been constrained by the State Department to remark that "although I told my audience that United States policy on the Armenian tragedy (sic) has not changed, I used the term 'genocide', speaking in what I characterised as my personal capacity".

Phew! But I think I get it. If you want to spill the beans while in office, you have to tell the truth only in "a personal capacity". The mass rape and slaughter of tens of thousands of Armenian girls in 1915 can only be acknowledged in a "personal capacity". The mass murder of Turkish Armenia's manhood in 1915 can only be conceded in a "personal capacity". And even then you are liable to get fired.

Well, I have a little nudge of the arm to make here. In October, I shall be lecturing in Turkey on the Armenian genocide. I shall be doing so as Middle East correspondent of The Independent as well as author of a book whose Turkish edition will carry a whole chapter on the Armenian holocaust. I don't have to talk in a "personal capacity" although I might like to have General Abu Zaki at my side. For what the Lebanese ISF would no doubt call my "safety".