Hariri Tribunal Has A New Key Witness
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has testimony to support its indictment of four suspects – and a yet to be named fifth suspect – in connection with the Hariri assassination. But details of the evidence obtained by Al-Akhbar reveal yet more holes in the prosecution case.
The pre-trial judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) approved its first indictment, naming four people accused of involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The STL prosecutor’s case against them was based on circumstantial evidence acquired by investigators from cellphone data and did not mention direct witnesses.
Al-Akhbar has obtained information that the prosecution does, however, have a star witness. He is the only individual on file to have provided it with direct testimony unrelated to the circumstantial conclusions drawn from telecommunications analysis.
The entire account provided by the prosecution is built on the inferences made by investigators from the use and movement of cellphones, unsupported by direct evidence.
The investigators divided the cellphones which they linked to the crime into five networks: red, yellow, blue, green and purple. They concluded that the users of each of these networks had a different job, even though the supposed users of the first four overlapped. The users of the purple network had a sole and specific and task: Ahmad Abu Adas and his famous video recording claiming responsibility for the assassination.
Only three people are presumed to have used the purple network: Hussein Oneissi and Asaad Sabra (both named in the indictment), plus Hassan Merhi (who is expected to be named in a future STL indictment).
According to the account constructed by former STL prosecutor Daniel Bellemare and his team, Oneissi, using the assumed name of “Muhammad,” got to know Abu Adas about two months before the assassination of Hariri (between 22 December 2004 and 17 January 2005) and chose him to be the supposed or declared suicide bomber. He met Abu Adas, a Palestinian aged 22 at the time, at the Arab University mosque, also known as the al-Houri mosque.
On 16 January 2005, one month prior to the assassination, Abu Adas disappeared after leaving his home to meet “Muhammad.” According to data from the cellphone attributed to Oneissi, the latter made no calls that day, strengthening the investigators’ belief that he was “Muhammad.”
Bellemare’s account adds that Oneissi and Sabra were in telephone contact with Merhi, and that this group’s role was confined to handling Abu Adas and delivering his video-recording to the Beirut bureaus of the Al Jazeera channel and Reuters news agency.
Concealed from the indictment was the prosecution’s reliance on the testimony of the “star witness” to identify “Muhammad.” His evidence is the most intriguing part of the probe, and could not have been expected to have been included in any public indictment. Bellemare and his team decided to hold it back as a surprise for the actual trial, as it is the only witness testimony they have to support their communications-based conclusions.
The STL prosecutor’s office thus attached a great deal of importance to the witness. He was accorded special treatment to ensure his safety and protect his identity. But the prosecution in the international probe into the Hariri killing has a record of not protecting its secret information (proven from the 2006 Le Figaro story, to the 2010 CBC broadcast, via Der Spiegel in 2009). Neither under Bellemare nor his predecessor Detlev Mehlis – and now perhaps under his successor Norman Farrell – has the investigation been able to show that it can keep documents and investigations entirely confidential, or even the identity of witnesses secret.
This “negligence” has extended to the leaking of entire audio recordings of witness statements.
So who is the star witness? What is the substance of his testimony? And does it really support the investigators’ conclusions?
The Star Witness
Full Name: Ahmad Mahmoud Muhammad Libdeh
Mother’s Name: Huda al-Baqqar
Date of Birth: 13/4/1985
Place and No. of ID Registry: al-Nouri, 720
Residence: Tripoli, al-Bahsas, moved to Daniyyeh in 2010 for security reasons
Occupation: Biology teacher at al-Iman school in Tripoli
Ahmad Libdeh says in his testimony that he knows the person who used the alias “Muhammad” and who the investigators presume had a role in the Abu Adas affair. Libdeh says he met “Muhammad” in December 2004, after the latter approached him inside the Arab University mosque and asked him to teach him how to pray. He introduced himself as “Muhammad,” and they made an appointment to meet again at the mosque. But Libdeh was late due to an emergency, and never met “Muhammad” again.
About one week later Abu Adas, who used to come to the mosque daily, disappeared. Libdeh later learned that Abu Adas’ mother said he had told her that he had met someone called “Muhammad” at the mosque, who had been born to Muslim parents but brought up in a Christian orphanage and wanted to return to Islam. She said that on the day he disappeared, her son told her he was going to see “Muhammad.”
The weakness in Abu Adas’ mother’s story was that she had never herself seen the “Muhammad” who her son met in the mosque. This made Libdeh suspect that he was the same “Muhammad” he had met there himself, who he believes to be complicit in the Hariri assassination.
The value of Libdeh’s testimony may be weakened by the circumstances under which he identified Oneissi, by recognising him from photographs he was shown by STL investigators. A number of considerations apply here:
1. The very brief period which Libdeh spent talking to “Muhammad” in 2004 raises questions about his ability to identify that person with certainty more than five years after the encounter. The two photos of Oneissi that were shown to him (and are posted on the STL website - Below) are in any case unclear. The difference between them is noticeable, and one could be excused for thinking they were not both of the same person.
2. The description given by Libdeh of “Muhammad” in a letter received by the UN investigative commission – the UNIIIC, the STL’s predecessor – in 2007 (numbered T-60015066-60015069 in the STL archive) is as follows: aged around 25, white faced, clean shaven, large blue eyes, no spectacles, chestnut-colored hair combed to the left, 170-175 centimeters tall.
Those who know Oneissi, or even who see his photo, know that this description does not fit him. He has olive skin, black hair, dark eyes, and was 31 years old in 2004.
Also, UNIIC documents show that Abd al-Rahman Harb, a neighbor of Abu Adas, saw “Muhammad” twice in his company. The testimony he gave to investigators in January 2008 (60064847-60064889 in the STL records) gives a different description of “Muhammad” compared to Libdeh’s – making him younger and shorter.
“Muhammad” also features in the testimony provided to UNIIIC by Sheikh Taha Qanwati, imam of the al-Imam Mosque in Beirut’s Tariq al-Jdideh, in Feb 2007 (60018821-60018836).
He said that Abu Adas told him about six months before Hariri’s assassination about someone named “Muhammad” who had recently converted to Islam. Abu Adas asked if Qanwati could give “Muhammad” some lessons in religion, but he apologized due to lack of time.
Significantly, Qanwati said he well remembered when that discussion with Abu Adas took place because it was before he left the country in September 2004 for a five-month trip abroad. This conflicts with the dates which the investigators came up with from their communications data analysis, which concluded that the cellphone attributed to Oneissi appeared in the vicinity of the Arab University at the end of 2004, around the time when “Muhammad” was supposed to have met Abu Adas.
3. Acquaintances of Oneissi are puzzled that investigators are basing their inferences on the cellphone attributed to him having been in the Arab University/Cite Sportive district. His presence in the vicinity would not have been significant, for the simple reason that he owns a commercial business there. Coming and going from the there was part of his normal life.
The above points – whether connected to the whereabouts of Oneissi’s cellphone, or the testimony of the witness who the investigators are treating as the “jewel in the crown” of their findings – raise fresh questions about what they have been saying since 2005 about applying he “highest international standards of justice.”
Once again, it is legitimate to ask whether it has been worth spending tens of millions of dollars on the international probe since the first UN fact-finding team arrived in Lebanon within days of the crime occurring.
Paternal Rage at Monteverde
In 2010, Ahmad Libdeh’s life was turned upside down. His marriage plans were abandoned after his father, Mahmoud, received a phone call from an Australian official in the STL’s witness protection unit, Chris O’Brien. He explained the nature of the information his son had provided, and that it put his life in danger.
The father was enraged and made his way to the STL headquarters in Lebanon at Monteverde. He virtually forced his way into the building, shouting and accusing the investigators of behaving unprofessionally by letting witnesses and identities be revealed and putting their lives at risk.
Hassan Merhi at the STL: Head of the “Purple Network”
What will be in the long-awaited amended STL indictment? The information available indicates that the name which former prosecutor Daniel Bellemare asked to be added to the list of those accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination is that of Hassan Merhi.
According to the account put together by investigators at the STL prosecutors’ office, Merhi headed the group that used the “purple” cellphone network, whose job was confined to tasks relating to Abu Adas. The group included Assad Sabra and Hussein Oneissi, and they used the cellphone numbers 03628231, 03618254, and 03261341.
It adds that Merhi coordinated the tasks of his group with Salim Ayyash (named in the first indictment) by contacting the latter on his personal telephone lines. According to the investigators, Sabra and Oneissi were in constant contact with Merhi throughout the period in which they worked to lure Abu Adas and film the video recording in which he claimed responsibility for the assassination of Hariri. The pair also maintained contact with Merhi over the delivery of the Abu Adas tape to the Al Jazeera bureau in Beirut, and over contacts with the Reuters office in the Lebanese capital.
The striking thing about this part of the story is that, also according to the prosecution, these numbers had been used by the three individuals since 2003. But Ayyash contacted Merhi using only his personal telephones, i.e. the same ones he used to speak to his family and friends.
Who or what party do you think was really responsible for killing Rafic al-Harriri? Do you this tribunal will ever reach a conclusion?