Siddiq stands by testimony against former security chiefs

Posted in Broader Middle East | 26-Apr-06 | Author: Majdoline Hatoum and Nafez Qaw| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

BEIRUT: A former Syrian intelligence officer, considered to be a "key witness" in former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri's killing, has denied allegations he retracted his testimony against four Lebanese generals accused of involvement in the murder. In an interview published Monday with Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Aam, Mohammad Zuheir Siddiq denied a report in Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar quoting the witness as saying he had never accused the former security chiefs in his testimony to the UN commission.

"This is absolutely not true ... I never retracted my testimony to the international commission ... My testimony from the beginning has not changed and will not change," Siddiq said.

The four former security department heads are presently sitting in prison awaiting trial on charges of "terrorism" and "willful murder" after the first UN investigation probe team, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, identified them as suspects in Hariri's murder.

The four officers are Jamil Sayyed, Mustafa Hamdan, Raymond Azar and Ali Hajj, the former heads of General Security, the Presidential Guards, Army Intelligence and the Internal Security Forces, respectively.

President Emile Lahoud has called for their release, saying their arrest was solely based on Siddiq's "false" testimony.

"I deny what Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has said. I also tell him he should submit his son (Ralph) to the investigation so he can explain what his car was doing with Mustafa Hamdan on the day of [Hariri's] murder," Siddiq said in Monday's article.

Firing back, Lahoud said the four generals should be allowed to face their accuser.

"What is important is that we need to know the whole truth. We want all four officers to face Siddiq," the president said.

However, Lahoud made no comment on his son's alleged involvement in the case.

Lahoud did however criticize Future TV, a station, owned by the Hariri family, which aired excerpts of Siddiq's interview.

"What's interesting is that his statement ... was coincidentally published by the so-called Future media. I wonder how this happened," the president said.

The Future Movement issued its own statement accusing the president of trying to "overstep the international community's decisions" in order to "defend the generals of his security apparatus."

"Since he was appointed [during the period of Syrian domination] - which at a later stage forcefully extended his mandate - Lahoud has gotten us used to his constant attempts at breaching the basic legal and constitutional rules of his post," the movement said.

"The constant attempts by the president to get the pillars of his security apparatus out of prison only increase the Lebanese public's suspicions of his position regarding this black terrorist circle," it added.

Mehlis was reported to have relied heavily on Siddiq's testimony in his first report, in which he said there was "converging evidence" of Syrian and Lebanese involvement in the February 14, 2005 murder.

However, the UN commission later changed the witness' status to suspect.

In October 2005, he was arrested by French authorities at the request of the Lebanese government. A French court released Siddiq in February after refusing to extradite him to Beirut, saying it had no guarantees he would not face the death penalty.

In Monday's interview, Siddiq said a misunderstanding with authorities had been rectified.

"When the misunderstanding was cleared they (French authorities) understood that my statements were true. It then became clear that I am the 'king witness' and they released me," he said.

Siddiq also accused Ad-Diyar owner and editor in chief Charles Ayoub of attempting to offer him a deal from Syrian authorities in exchange for retracting his testimony.

"He (Ayoub) told me that I would be a Syrian hero if I retracted my testimony, and added that he would be visiting Paris soon with an offer from the Syrian leadership," Siddiq said.

The witness further said that before he went to the UN commission he tried to tell officials in Damascus about the involvement of Syrian and Lebanese officers in Hariri's assassination on two separate occasions, but was twice advised to be silent.

According to Siddiq, in April 2005 he contacted General Hassan Khalil, who was the head of Syria's military intelligence when Hariri was killed, and asked to have a message sent to President Bashar Assad. That is when he was threatened and fled to Spain, he said.

From Spain he contacted Mohammad Naji al Otari, who has recently been named prime minister, in another attempt to reach Assad.

He received a reply that the Syrian officers "cannot be touched" and that the "traitor has met his fate," which he said was a reference to Hariri.

Siddiq said there are still Syrian officials and "political figures" in Lebanon with close ties to Damascus who have not been named in the UN commission's reports but who are involved in the assassination.

He further said the truth was close to being revealed and predicted "surprises in the investigation that will not surface before the end of the probe." - With Naharnet.