Under Suspicion

A reason interview with German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis

In February 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated, along with 21 others, in a massive truck bomb explosion in Beirut. Most observers blamed Syria for the crime, and in the aftermath hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in what was later dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," demanding a Syrian military withdrawal from their country. The United Nations Security Council set up a special independent commission to investigate the murder and identify the guilty. Last year, the U.N. took the additional step of establishing, under Chapter VII of its charter, a special tribunal, currently being set up near The Hague, to try the suspects.

The first commissioner of the U.N. investigation team was, Detlev Mehlis, a Berlin native who is now a senior prosecutor at the city's Superior Prosecutor's Office. His successor was the Belgian Serge Brammertz, who recently left the Hariri investigation to take up duties as prosecutor of the special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. A Canadian, Daniel Bellemare, has replaced Brammertz, and once the investigation is completed he is expected to become the first prosecutor of the Hariri tribunal. After two years of virtual silence, Mehlis agreed to go on the record for a Wall Street Journal interview I conducted with him, in which he criticized the slow progress in the investigation. This is an expanded version of that interview, which took place in Berlin.

reason: For a long time after you left your post as commissioner of the United Nations-mandated Hariri inquiry in December 2005, you refused to go on the record to talk about the case. Why do so now?

Detlev Mehlis: My successor, Serge Brammertz, has just left after two years on the job, and a new commissioner, Daniel Bellemare, has been installed. So it's a good time for a summing up on my part. To have spoken up earlier would have created an impression of interfering in the investigation. I also feel I owe it to the people I worked with during my eight months as commissioner. This is my final statement, except for one exception when I will be interviewed by a German newspaper.

reason: Recently, however, you did go on the record to tell a Frankfurt daily that you "regretted" having left the investigation in December 2005. Why did you say this?

Detlev Mehlis: From what I am hearing, the investigation has lost all the momentum it had [when Brammertz took over] in January 2006. Had I stayed on, I would have handled things differently. But I couldn't stay because the U.N. told me that for security reasons I could no longer remain in Lebanon after January 2006. They offered to relocate me outside the country, but this was impossible for me. The permanent representative of Germany at the U.N. told the organization that it would be unacceptable for a German prosecutor to stay away from his team in Beirut. I fully agreed with this. I also left for professional and family reasons.

reason: What would you have done differently than Brammertz?

Detlev Mehlis: Above all I would have continued informing the U.N. Security Council and the Lebanese on progress in the investigation. When I arrived in Beirut, I said that participation of the media was central for democracy. The Lebanese public has to be informed, even if there are setbacks in the investigation. In a democracy people have the right to know, particularly when a prime minister was murdered and people don't trust the authorities. This was an opportunity to restore credibility to the justice system.

There is also a practical rationale: To have the support of the public, to encourage witnesses to come forward with information, and for governments to send specialized investigators, you need to give them an idea of what you are doing.

reason: What makes you think that Brammertz has not moved forward? After all, he wrote in his reports that he had identified "persons of interest"?

Detlev Mehlis: Unfortunately, I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage. There is no judicial term that I have ever heard of called a "person of interest." You have suspects, and a "person of interest" is definitely not a suspect. If you have identified suspects in a case like this one, you don't allow them to roam free for years to tamper with evidence, flee the country, or commit similar crimes.

reason: But what if Brammertz did not reveal his information for tactical reasons? He has defended preserving the "secrecy of the investigation."

Detlev Mehlis: I don't accept the concept of the "secrecy of the investigation," nor is it a judicial principle that I know. For me, as a German, the notion of a secret investigation sounds ominous. For the reasons I outlined earlier, the public has the right to know and the U.N. commission has to inform without endangering its investigation.

reason: Brammertz reopened the crime scene after he took over from you. What was your reaction to that move?

Detlev Mehlis: I wondered what he was doing. We already had Swiss, French, and German expert opinion indicating that the explosion that killed Hariri was beyond doubt an above-ground explosion. By reopening the crime scene he cast doubt on the credibility of the investigation that I had led. He also wasted valuable time and manpower. All this only to end up confirming our initial findings. But this is typical of a broader problem, namely that in the past two years the U.N. investigation has told us little we didn't already know before Brammertz became commissioner. We are now told that Hariri was killed for political reasons and that there were several layers of participation in the conspiracy. We needed two years of investigative endeavor to discover this?

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    wow, am i the only one who found this interesting?

    drink!

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    Nope. In addition, I thought that Detlev chap came across as intelligent, sincere, and an all-around professional.

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    Man, I was all ready to bust out the snark on Mr. Young and here he conducts a smart, well-organized interview.

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    For a long time after you left your post as commissioner of the United Nations-mandated Hariri inquiry in December 2005, you refused to go on the record to talk about the case. Why do so now?

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