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?

But let me hasten to add that my criticism is not personal. I'm the one who recommended Brammertz, among others, for the post of commissioner, so I must bear some responsibility for what happened afterward.

reason: Do you feel Brammertz's silence may have been due to his fear that being more open about the inquiry might have led to political conflict inside Lebanon?

Detlev Mehlis: I don't buy the argument. The assassination was always going to have political repercussions. It was a political crime. We had to accept this and it came with the territory. For many Lebanese we did too little; for the United Nations we did too much. Many at the U.N. would have preferred a softer approach. I understood this. The U.N. didn't want another problem.

reason: So, was there interference by the Secretary General's office in your work, particularly from then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan?

Detlev Mehlis: Annan made it clear to me that he did not want another trouble spot. I respected this but he also respected my point of view. Traditionally, there is tension between politics and justice, and I accepted that Annan did not want more problems because of the Hariri case. Relations are helped little when a prosecutor [like Brammertz] uses terms such as the "secrecy of the investigation." Yet Annan was always very supportive of my work and well-being. The U.N. did not interfere in my efforts and had no leverage over me, as I was not after a position in the organization. Even had the U.N. tried, there were investigators from 17 countries who might have thought differently, making this impossible.

reason: There was the famous case where, in your first report, one could access through the track changes command the edits in the initial draft of the document. It was clear that you had edited out the names of two very senior members of the Syrian leadership mentioned by a Syrian witness. Was leaving the track changes in intentional, so people could see which officials might have been implicated?

Detlev Mehlis: Not at all. When I prepared the original report, it was my impression that it would be confidential; that we would release to the public a version containing fewer details. However, in New York I learned that Annan wanted to make the report public. I intervened to say that, therefore, we needed to remove the names in question, because the persons mentioned were not suspects, but had merely been mentioned by a witness. Only the names of suspects and certain prominent witnesses were in the report. The U.N. press office made an unfortunate mistake in releasing the document with the track changes. It was definitely not intentional.

reason: Your reports, the fact that you asked the Lebanese authorities to arrest four pro-Syrian Lebanese intelligence chiefs, and your requests to interview Syrian officials and intelligence officers all showed whom you suspected of being involved in the crime. What was it like dealing with the Syrians, and how many times did you travel to Syria?

Detlev Mehlis: My interlocutors always treated me courteously and professionally, even in a friendly way. But they also made it clear to me that there were limits to their cooperation. I twice went to Syria: once for preliminary talks and once to interview witnesses.

reason: Before leaving, you had put in a request to interview Syrian President Bashar Assad as a witness. The Syrians were quite bothered by this. In the end you never spoke to President Assad. What happened?

Detlev Mehlis: I left before the process could go through and don't know what later happened. There were reports that Brammertz held a meeting with President Assad, but that is legally quite different than taking down a witness statement. In fact I took down the statements of many Lebanese politicians, who did not seem especially keen to put their signature on a document having legal repercussions. I also interviewed the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, who seemed to have no problem with this.

reason: Two of your key Syrian witnesses did not seem particularly reliable. One told a press conference in Damascus that his testimony was fraudulent; the other, a former intelligence officer, later became a suspect in Hariri's murder, and has made contradictory statements.

Detlev Mehlis: In such crimes you cannot be choosy about whom you are dealing with. What do you expect, white angels, coming out from the blue? Those two gave us a lot of information, which we could sometimes corroborate with information received elsewhere. In the end, the tribunal will determine their credibility, and ask why they agreed to sign their statements. Maybe the witnesses were there to discredit the investigation, but that can help us determine who wants to discredit the investigation.

reason: The four intelligence chiefs you asked the Lebanese authorities to arrest are still in jail. Their lawyers are saying that they are entitled to be set free, pending a trial. What are your thoughts about this?

Detlev Mehlis: That is one reason why it's important to accelerate the trial process, to protect the rights of the accused. At the same time, we did find sufficient evidence that all four generals were involved in the Hariri case. This was not my assessment alone, but also that of my commission's investigators and the Lebanese judiciary. Recently, I was accused in press reports in Beirut of having interviewed one of the suspects–Jamil al-Sayyed–without his lawyer. That is nonsense. But there has been a lot of media misinformation on my participation in the Hariri case in order to derail the investigation.

reason: Last week there were reports that judges had been appointed to the Hariri tribunal, which will try suspects identified in the ongoing investigation. The tribunal was established last year under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and will be based near The Hague. This suggests that there is progress.

Detlev Mehlis: Perhaps, but because I haven't seen a word on new suspects in the past two years, I have my doubts. I think people should not expect a trial within the next two to three years, unless the investigation regains momentum. I fear that the suspects will end up in a judicial no-man's land, with Lebanon claiming they are under the U.N.'s jurisdiction, and the U.N. saying that they must remain under Lebanese jurisdiction.

reason: You seem to believe that the problem with the Hariri tribunal is not so much the likelihood of a cover-up, but that the process will stall. Do you think a cover up, like Lockerbie bombing, is possible?

Detlev Mehlis: The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground. That is why the investigation was supposed to continue [when I left].Therefore I think that it would be very difficult to have a Lockerbie II.

reason: There is palpable international reluctance to carry the Hariri case to its conclusion, and you alluded to this earlier. Few at the U.N., for example, are particularly eager to destabilize Syria's regime, assuming its involvement in the Hariri murder is proven. Do you think this might derail the case?

Detlev Mehlis: You can't prosecute governments and countries; you prosecute individuals. When I headed [the U.N. investigation], there was a will to get to the bottom of the crime—shown in all the Security Council resolutions on the matter. Why not now? One of the most helpful [member nations] was Russia, which persuaded Syria to comply with the resolutions. Even with states having different interests, common understandings can be reached.

reason: What do you know of Daniel Bellemare, the new commissioner?

Detlev Mehlis: I have never met him, heard of him, or been contacted by him.

reason: What advice would you give to Bellemare?

Detlev Mehlis: Concentrate on the Hariri case itself; don't try to write a history book. Focus on the whos, hows and whys of the crime. Analysis can never replace solid investigative police work. As my top Swedish investigator once put it, "A case like this cannot be solved through a PowerPoint presentation."

reason: What does the Hariri case mean for the U.N.?

Detlev Mehlis: This can either be an example of efficient U.N. involvement or a one-time experiment. The U.N.'s image is at stake, particularly in Lebanon, where people put high hopes—perhaps too high—in the Hariri investigation.

reason: It took you nine years to bring convictions for the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin, in which you accused Libyan officials of being behind the attack. What did that experience teach you?

Detlev Mehlis: That justice prevails, but you have to have patience. I also recall that for years the LaBelle case dragged on with small successes and failures, but it was always kept alive on the prosecution's side by my working to inform the media; and on the victims' side because their families created pressure groups. I feel that in the [Hariri] case, the families of the deceased can certainly play a much more active role. It's important to keep such cases in the public eye.

reason: In conclusion, do you feel the Hariri tribunal will go forward?

Detlev Mehlis: Someone committed a terrible crime and someone is responsible. Definitely, no one can abolish this tribunal. I may not be happy about the time frame, but am deeply convinced the case can be solved and will be solved.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.