Mehlis Report - the Path to the Truth in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — “The Truth” has become almost like a national slogan ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It appeared on posters, bumper stickers and flags across Lebanon — a demand to know the truth about the incident that shook the country.

With the long-awaited results of the international investigation into Hariri's murder, the Lebanese people feel that their cries have been answered.

The 54-page “Mehlis Report,” named for the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis who directed the probe, affirmed what the Lebanese have always believed: “The decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranking Syrian security officials, and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services.”

Hariri and 22 others were killed in a massive blast as his convoy passed through downtown Beirut in February, 2005.

A month after Hariri's assassination, an outraged Lebanese public — more than 1 million Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druze — took to the streets in a historic peaceful protest demanding freedom, sovereignty and independence from Syria. By the end of April, Syria had withdrawn the last of its troops, ending its nearly 30-year occupation of its tiny neighbor. About 33% of Lebanon's approximate 3.5 million people are Christian.

Syria Retaliates

However, it was soon obvious that Syria's intelligence apparatus had not been completely dismantled from Lebanon and that Syria would not go quietly. Christian areas were targeted in a series of blasts, including the Voice of Charity Catholic radio station in apparent retaliation for the broadcaster's campaign for the release of Lebanese detained in Syria's prisons.

During the five-month Mehlis probe, 30 investigators from 17 countries interviewed more than 400 witnesses and suspects, reviewing some 60,000 documents, and producing more than 16,500 pages of data.

A week before the Oct. 20 release of the report, Lebanese Member of Parliament Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, had a closed-door meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nassrallah Boutros Sfeir in Rome during the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist.

Afterwards, Hariri said, “His Eminence and I are optimistic because Lebanon has a golden opportunity that we must grasp,” referring to the first chance for true Lebanese sovereignty in decades.

Upon his return to Lebanon after the synod, Cardinal Sfeir remarked, “We support the results of the report, but there are certain points in the report that need to be studied carefully.”

He added that the document “raises many questions,” in apparent reference to certain identities which have yet to be identified.

“This report gives us the way of the truth,” said Father Joseph Mouannes, secretary general of the Commission of Communications for the Catholic Church in the Middle East. “It [the report] is not the end, but it is the beginning of the walk for the real truth.

We cannot cover a mountain with lies.”

Probe Extended

On Oct. 31, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1636 — sponsored by the United States, France and Britain — ordering Syria to cooperate fully with the U.N.'s investigation. Hours later, Mehlis returned to Beirut to continue the probe that the U.N. had extended to Dec. 15 at the request of Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, who commands the presidential guard, and his brother-in-law, the head of military intelligence, were implicated in an unedited version of the Mehlis report.

“The Christians, in particular, are pleased to see the Syrians, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist for 29 years and brought corruption and persecution to them, are at last on the ropes with the rest of the international community,” said Habib Malik, a Roman Catholic with a Greek Orthodox background. He teaches history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University's Byblos campus.

The Hariri investigation has, in effect, become a cause of international and national unity, with all members of the National Security Council in agreement, as are Lebanon's Christian, Muslim and Druze communities in their support of the Mehlis report's findings. Even Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Islamic political and military party in Lebanon, has not denounced the report.

The Mehlis report alleged that a call was made by one of the suspects to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mobile phone minutes following the assassination, which has escalated the outcries among the Lebanese for his resignation.

Cardinal Sfeir, however, cautioned against accusing the president: “The investigation team neither interviewed President Lahoud as a witness nor as a suspect, so it is not the right time to raise the presidency issue,” the cardinal said.

“We must show more respect toward the presidential post,” the cardinal pointed out, insisting it is Lahoud's decision whether to stay in office or resign. The Maronite archbishop is making an effort to preserve the legitimacy of the presidency, a post which has become severely tarnished during Lahoud's tenure. (The Lebanese Constitution stipulates the post be held by a Maronite Catholic.)

Emile Lahoud was appointed president by Syria in 1987. In September 2004, through a Syrian-orchestrated constitutional amendment, his term was extended. Rafik Hariri resigned as prime minister in protest over the extended mandate and was signaling that he might align himself with the opposition.

Currently, Christian politicians widely viewed as potential presidential candidates have individually met with the patriarch since the release of the Mehlis report. Cardinal Sfeir is urging that they be unified.

Despite the fact that President Lahoud essentially no longer has any power without the support of his Syrian backers, it appears that an advantage of his remaining in office is that it would allow time for the formation of a new election law to replace the one imposed by Syria. It would also give the Christian political parties time to unify and become organized.

“Moral chaos has reached its pinnacle and we stand at a crossroads,” said Cardinal Sfeir during his homily Oct. 30. “We should be cautious and patient in judging people, positions and events.”

He pointed out that national unity is the only way to reinforce Lebanon against divisions and strife.

He said, “In light of the situation we are witnessing, there is no room for personal gain.”

Doreen Abi Raad writes Bikfaya, Lebanon.

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