Syria denies UN charge of slow cooperation

DAMASCUS (Reuters) — Syria on Tuesday rebuffed UN accusations that it was hampering an inquiry into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and complained of violations in the questioning of five officials.
“We disagree with the inaccurate remarks in the [UN] report that indicate slowness on the part of Syria in offering full cooperation with the work of the international investigation committee,” it said in a statement to the UN Security Council.

The statement, obtained by Reuters in Damascus, said the UN panel had agreed to uphold guarantees set in international pacts for questioning, “but the investigators did not adhere to these principles in the investigation sessions in Vienna.”

It said the British lawyers of the officials had complained to the committee that their clients’ testimonies were summarised and the officials had signed them although they had no chance to verify their remarks because they were documented in a language they did not know.

The statement said Damascus had informed the panel that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shara was willing to meet the head of the UN investigation team in Damascus “or during one of his official visits to Europe.” It did not say what would be the purpose of the meeting with German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is heading the inquiry.

“Syria affirms its willingness to cooperate with the investigation in the coming period, and calls upon your esteemed council to take into consideration the remarks in this statement,” said the statement.

Showdown shunned?

To avert a showdown with the world body, Syria has allowed UN investigators to question five officials in Vienna.

Neither Syria nor the United Nations has identified the officials questioned, but diplomatic sources say they included Lt. Gen. Rustom Ghazali, Syria’s former intelligence chief in Lebanon, Lt. Gen. Thafer Youssef, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Karim Abbas, and Ghazali’s aide, Jamea Jamea.

Syria says its cooperation with the inquiry should prevent any punitive action. The Security Council has warned of unspecified action against Damascus if it fails to cooperate.

Syria criticised the report by Mehlis presented to the Security Council on Monday and said it had shortcomings similar to those in the initial report issued on October 25, which Syria slammed then as politicised.

“The report reaffirms the conclusions upon which the previous report was based, which were built on suspicion, therefore [making] precast accusations before establishing evidence,” it said. “The criticism directed to the previous report applies to this report.” Damascus denied allegations quoted in the new report that it had manipulated Syrian witness Hosam Taher Hosam to recant his testimony, which he said was coerced by Lebanese officials.

“What was mentioned in the report regarding manipulating, threatening or arresting him or any of his kin before making his testimony in Syria is absolutely untrue,” it said.

Hosam, who said he fled Lebanon in November, has said the initial report was largely based on his lies. Hosam’s lawyer has also denied any Syrian pressure on his client.

The statement said Syria received a letter from another Syrian witness who has been identified by the report — Mohammad Zuhair Siddiq — stating that “he had been kidnapped and forced to make his previous testimony” to implicate Syria.

On October 18, Lebanon accused Siddiq of involvement in Hariri’s killing and said he had misled UN investigators. His testimony was upheld in both reports published after Lebanon issued an arrest warrant against him. Siddiq is jailed in France.

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