Hussam Taher Hussam, once called "the masked witness," lights his lawyer's cigarette in an interview about his claims to have given false testimony about the killing of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
The United Nations investigation into the assassination of the former
Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, is beginning to show some cracks: one
witness is dead, another is in jail and still another has recanted his testimony
with a fantastic story of abduction, drugging and bribery.
In a case that has begun to sound more and more like a fictional spy
thriller, with charges of Soviet-style intimidation tactics and a witness who
died when his car ran off a road, the issue of witness credibility has risen
to the forefront. While it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions on how the
new developments will affect the investigation, they have at least raised questions
about the validity of crucial evidence supporting the charge that the Syrian
state was responsible for Mr. Hariri's assassination, according to Western diplomats
based in Syria and a draft of an interim report by the United Nations investigator,
A month ago, Syrian officials were reeling, accused by investigators of complicity
in the killing and fearful that the Security Council would demand that they
hand over some of Syria's most powerful people or face crushing economic sanctions
and international isolation. But now, it is Syrian on the offensive, undercutting
credibility of witnesses and diluting charges that Syria has refused to cooperate
by sending officials to Vienna for questioning.
And more troubling news seems to be on the way, as Mr. Mehlis prepares to make
his final presentation to the Security Council by Dec. 15. Two people who work
for a Syrian government agency said Tuesday that another witness would soon
recant his testimony, claiming he was bribed with half a million dollars by
Lebanese officials to level charges against Syrian officials.
The two people who said they had heard the new claims from the witness - who
they said called himself Abu George - insisted on anonymity out of fear of retribution
for undermining official plans to spring this development at a time most embarrassing
to the investigation.
At the moment, Syrians are enjoying the spectacle of Hussam Taher Hussam, the
rail-thin 30-year-old known as "the masked witness," who outed himself
recently with outlandish claims to have given false testimony after being kidnapped,
tortured and offered $1.3 million in bribes by Lebanese officials - charges
that even critics of the investigation say are hard to believe.
Security agents escorted Mr. Hussam into a hotel room on Monday to recount
for a reporter a tale that exonerates him and Syrian officials of all wrongdoing
while implicating Syria's chief enemies in the killing and subsequent conspiracy
to frame Damascus. He repeatedly boasted about his ability to mislead people.
"No, they are not dumb," Mr. Hussam said of the investigators, who
he said never doubted his account of events even after questioning him dozens
of times. "I am smarter. I penetrated through all of them. I am proud of
it. I penetrated through all of them, and I acted well."
Regardless of which of his versions - if either one - of his accounts are true,
his change of tune presents a complication for the investigation. He is the
witness who implicated the president's brother-in-law, Asef Shawkut, in planning
the murder, and reported seeing the van packed with explosives that was used
in the assassination, according to Western diplomats based in Syria and a draft
of the report that officials said was inadvertently released by the United Nations.
He is also the witness who apparently told the commission that an officer told
him "there soon would be an earthquake that would rewrite the history of
A European diplomat based in Damascus, who asked for anonymity because he was
not authorized to speak publicly, said: "He definitely has a credibility
problem. You cannot trust this guy. How did Mehlis trust this guy?"
A senior State Department official said the United States had no evidence that
Mr. Mehlis's investigation was encountering problems and warned that Syria was
waging a "concerted effort to cast doubt on the Mehlis investigation."
He said allegations about the recanting of one witness's testimony and other
problems did not constitute anything like evidence that the Mehlis inquiry was
running into trouble, as Syria says.
Mr. Mehlis, who said Monday he is leaving the investigation after his final
report, said many of the setbacks were to be expected in such a complex investigation.
Ultimately, he said, it will all have to be sorted out by a tribunal that will
weigh the evidence and the contradictory statements given by individual witnesses.
Mr. Mehlis also said Mr. Hussam was an important witness, and said he expected
that he would be summoned to Lebanon for follow-up questioning.
"That is why we put on paper what people tell us," Mr. Mehlis said
in a discussion of the case in his Beirut office on Monday. "That is why
we let them read what we put on paper. That is why after reading it, we let
them sign it. That's why we have asked them: 'Have you been threatened? Have
you been given promises? Have you been offered or given money?' And we let them
read it and let them sign it, because it unfortunately happens that people die,
that people get killed, that people get sick, or change their minds on what
they have told us."
He also said he continued to believe Mr. Hussam's initial testimony.
"But we didn't find a major inaccuracy in his statements," Mr. Mehlis
said. "And again I find it very credible. But after all, we are doing the
investigation; we are not doing the judgment. And in cases like this the judge
Even before Mr. Mehlis and his team reported their findings to the Security
Council, questions arose about the credibility of one of the main witnesses
- Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik.
Mr. Saddik said senior Syrian and Lebanese officials had met in his apartment
to plan the assassination. The report says that Mr. Saddik approached the commission
with detailed information about the planning of the attack but then later changed
his testimony and confessed to participating in the attack. He is now in jail
in Paris at the request of Mr. Mehlis.
Credibility issues arose again when the German magazine Der Spiegel reported
that Mr. Mehlis was introduced to Mr. Saddik by Rifaat al-Assad, the late President
Hafez al-Assad's brother, who is an opponent of his nephew's government. The
newspaper also reported that Mr. Saddik told his brother in Damascus that "I've
become a millionaire" as a result of his testimony.
Mr. Mehlis acknowledges in his report that many of Mr. Saddik's charges can
not be corroborated, but that he has added credibility because he implicated
himself. The Syrians say he is a liar. The Security Council will have to decide.
In late November, a witness connected to some of Mr. Mehlis's most important
evidence - cellphone cards that were linked to the assassination - was killed
when his car flipped into a valley. Nawar Habib Donna, a Tripoli cellphone dealer,
was identified as having sold five of the eight cellphone cards that Mr. Mehlis's
team had connected to the killing.
And then came Mr. Hussam, who held a news conference in Damascus last month
to insist that all his testimony was a lie, beaten out of him by Lebanese officials,
offered only after he had been drugged by Lebanese authorities.
In his later hotel-room interview with security agents, Mr. Hussam smoked French
cigarettes as he offered a two-hour account of the events that led him to this
place in the investigation. He said he had never actually been an employee of
the Syrian intelligence services, but since childhood he had spied on those
around him and informed on them to the police. So he said when he went to Syria
to work as a barber, it was natural that he would continue snooping. "It
is a gift and a sense, like they say, a sixth sense," he said about his
ability to convince people he is telling the truth when he is not.
Souad Mekhennet contributed reporting from Beirut for
this article, and Katherine Zoepf from Damascus.