Just weeks before Rafik Hariri was assassinated, two high-ranking Hezbollah officials expressed shock that the former prime minister had refused requests made by the Syrian government, Hani Hammoud told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Wednesday.
Hammoud, who served as a media adviser to Hariri, said in early January 2005 that veteran journalist Nassir al-Asaad approached him saying he wanted to discuss an unsettling meeting he had with Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, who heads Hezbollah’s political council.
Sayyed, Asaad said, had expressed indignant disbelief that Rafik Hariri had declined to accept pro-Syrian candidates on his electoral list as he had done in the past. “Mr. Ibrahim Amin Al-Sayyed told Nassir [Asaad], “Has Rafik Hariri gone crazy? Doesn’t he know those people will kill him?” Hammoud recalled.
“On that day it was clear to me that the words … ‘they would kill him’ meant the Syrian regime,” Hammoud testified.
Hammoud arranged for Asaad to meet with Hariri to discuss the encounter. Hariri, however, brushed off the incident. “The prime minister reacted as if it was an attempt to scare him,” Hammoud recalled.
An almost identical interaction between the three men, Asaad, Hammoud and Hariri, was repeated just weeks later after Asaad met with Hussein Khalil, the political aide to Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
“I was with Hussein Khalil two or three days ago,” Hammoud recalled Asaad telling Hariri at a meeting. “He [Khalil] told me, ‘Who does Rafik Hariri think he is saying no to the Syrians! Sayyed Nasrallah is not entitled to say no to the Syrians.’”
After Asaad described the meeting, Hariri politely bid him goodnight, Hammoud recalled.
While five Hezbollah members have been charged with plotting the blast which killed Hariri and 21 others on Feb. 14, 2005, the prosecution has suggested that the Syrian regime was also involved in the conspiracy.
Prosecutor Graeme Cameron expressed that conviction in no uncertain terms Wednesday when he showed Hammoud a picture of Nasrallah smiling alongside Rustom Ghazaleh, the lead Syrian military intelligence officer in Lebanon. The picture, Cameron said, showed the “close relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, including Rustom Ghazaleh.”
Ghazaleh had emerged as a central figure in the prosecution’s narrative of the crime, particularly after multiple witnesses have acknowledged that Hariri was compelled to pay him exorbitant sums of money each month to stay in his good graces.
After completing his testimony in chief, defense counsel Philippe Larochelle, who represents accused Hezbollah member Hussein Oneissi, quizzed Hammoud at length about the payments to Ghazaleh. Hammoud insisted that it was only after Hariri’s assassination that he heard of the alleged payments.