By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
The extraordinary scenes this week at a gynaecological and obsetrics clinic in the southern suburbs of Beirut have again cast light on the work of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), set up to investigate the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. STL investigators went to Dr Inam Charara’s clinic with a demand to be given access to the files of patients dating back to 2003. More specifically, they wanted the addresses and phone numbers of 17 patients. The presence of STL investigators in her clinic disturbed women waiting for appointments. Other women arrived from other clinics in the building and a fracas broke out. Eventually the investigators were driven off, but not before a computer, a briefcase, mobile phones and notebooks had been snatched from them. The episode raises fresh questions about the role of the STL. The southern suburbs are predominantly Shi’a and many of the patients in Dr Charara’s clinic are the wives, daughters and mothers of Hizbullah officials. What the STL hoped to find remains known only to itself.
The demand for information from medical records would cut across the principle of doctor-patient confidentiality in any country and would never be allowed in the US or any EU country, if allowed at all, except on the basis of a successful application to a court. In Lebanon it was not even made by a government agency but by an extra-territorial organisation which arrived with nothing other than the authority of the UN. The demand was further outrageous in the context of a conservative Muslim culture. Muslim men will not even allow their women to see male doctors. Most Muslim women would only want to be seen by a female doctor and this invasion by men of a gynaecological clinic was extraordinarily intrusive and insensitive.
In an address made immediately after these events, Hasan Nasrallah called for a complete boycott of the STL. He said that it had sought and been given access to the data base of all students (Lebanese and foreign) at private universities in Lebanon from 2003-2006, but left open the question of whether student records at public universities had also been given to the STL. He said it had sought the fingerprint and passport details relating to all Lebanese nationals but because of a dispute between government officials had succeeded in getting the data of only 893 people. The STL had also sought all telecommunications records, including sms messages, as well as DNA records held by government agencies, topographical surveys covering the entire country and even lists of electricity subscribers. Nasrallah said there was no sector in Lebanon the STL had not penetrated. He claimed, furthermore, that all material being gathered by the STL had been passed on to western intelligence agencies and Israel. On the basis of the known transmission to Israel of information gathered by the UN arms inspection teams sent to Iraq in the 1990s, there is no reason to doubt the possibility that what he is saying is true.
Lebanon has again become the focal point of a region-global power struggle. On one side is the unusual combination of Syria and Saudi Arabia, trying to preserve stability between Sunni, Shia and Christians and on the other is Israel and the US, which are doing their best to destroy Hizbullah through the destabilisation of Lebanon. The indictment of Hizbullah members is the chief weapon in their arsenal.
Questions about the role of the STL – what some see as its true role as opposed to its declared role – have been asked since the beginning. The report of the first prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, was a hatchet job, a grotesque parody of a proper investigation. There was not even an attempt to look at all possible suspects, which would naturally have had to include the US and Israel. He went straight for Syria. His ‘evidence’ was mostly based on speculation and loose connections. Where his report had some appearance of solidity was in records of mobile phone calls made by those alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Hariri. On this basis, four senior Lebanese security and intelligence officials were prosecuted and jailed for four years, only to be released the moment they were transferred from the custody of the Lebanese government to the custody of the STL because the evidence did not stand up. It was at this point that the STL turned its attention to Hizbullah.
It has now turned out that the STL was either duped by false witnesses or chose to use them against Syria. It has also turned out that Israel, by the time Hariri was assassinated, had penetrated the networks of Lebanon’s two main telecommunications providers and actually had its own agents inside these organisations. This penetration not only allowed Israel to monitor all mobile phone calls in Lebanon but to fabricate them, and on this basis all communications evidence collected by the STL would have to be regarded as tainted. Furthermore, Hizbullah recently produced intercepts of Israeli aerial surveillance showing that Hariri had been tracked as he travelled between his homes in West Beirut and the mountains and the parliament building right up to the day he was killed. This surveillance included his movement along the coastal road where he drove into the trap set for him. Nasrallah has also claimed that an Israeli AWACs plane was circling over West Beirut at the time of the assassination and that an Israeli agent, who later fled the country, was actually at the scene when the bomb went off.
The STL’s claims to credibility and impartiality have clearly been undermined – lethally undermined as many would say – by its reliance on false witnesses and evidence from a subverted communications system. Yet it has not dealt with these issues. Neither has it dealt with the clear proof that Israel was monitoring Hariri’s movements across West Beirut up to the day he died, and indeed the claim that it had an agent at the scene of the bombing. Ignoring all this, it has gone straight for Hizbullah, in the full knowledge that the issuing of indictments has the potential to tear the country apart. Whether the evidence is again based on false witnesses won’t matter, because by the time the truth is established the damage will have been done.
Senior US officials, including Hillary Clinton, have made numerous visits to Lebanon in recent months. Of course they are cooking up something. They want Hizbullah’s head on a platter as soon as possible. Any Lebanese who thinks they have Lebanon’s best interests at heart is a fool. Unable to destroy Hizbullah in battle, the Israeli-US strategy now is to destroy it from within, even if the cost, which, of course, they would not have to pay, is a return to turmoil in Lebanon. Its chief assault weapon is the STL, which, by refusing to deal with issues that call into question its credibility, has only heightened the perception that, willingly or otherwise, it is a tool of US policy. The assassination of Hariri was a master stroke which served the interests only of the US and Israel. Even if the identity of the people who killed him, or the state which planned his killing, still remains unknown, that much at least can be said to be true.
– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.