Lebanese cabinet says Syrian arrest warrants issue belongs to justice ministries in both countries within the framework of sovereignty and norms

Hariri believes warrants are “political schemes”

Saudi Arabia, Egypt support Lebanon tribunal

Israel presses Lebanon to cancel Iranian president’s visit

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that he was disappointed by Syria's issuing of arrest warrants against 33 individuals, who allegedly misled investigations into the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

During the cabinet session, Hariri told the ministers that he had hoped progress so far achieved on the level of bilateral ties between Lebanon and Syria would have prevented the issuing of such warrants, but he stressed that he will continue to work towards building "excellent ties with Syria."

Hariri's words came one day after the Syrian judiciary issued arrest warrants against 33 persons who were accused of providing false testimonies involving Syria and its allies in Lebanon in the 2005 Hariri murder. The arrest warrants came in the lawsuit filed by Lebanese former security chief Jamil al-Sayyed.

The warrants targeted prominent members of the Hariri team, including Lebanon's State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza and the country's police chief Ashraf Rifi.

A Shiite general, Sayyed was held in custody in 2005 as allegedly being involved in Hariri's killing, but was released in 2009 due to lack of evidence.

Lebanon's rivalry political groups are now engaging in an intense bickering, as the parliamentary minority, Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance accused the western-backed March 14 Alliance of misleading investigation work of Hariri's case. The two sides also argued about the funding of Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the Hague-based body in charge of the case.

Lebanon is set to disregard alleged arrest warrants issued by Syria against prominent Lebanese officials and figures close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, since Lebanese judicial authorities were not informed of them officially by their Syrian counterparts.

Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar said he would refrain from undertaking any contacts with the Syrian authorities with regard to the arrest warrants allegedly issued until Damascus undertakes the legal steps required.

The Future Movement played down the importance of the alleged warrants, stressing its commitment and that of its leader to Lebanese-Syrian ties based on the reciprocal respect of both country’s sovereignty and their best interests.

A statement issued following the parliamentary bloc’s meeting said relations with Damascus would not be influenced by “passing stances” but would rather remain “solid based on solid foundations.”

“What has been reported in the media about Syrian warrants is regarded up until now as political and media warrants, particularly that the Lebanese state did not receive any documents through official channels,” the statement added.

The attendees added that if media reports proved to be true, Syria would be obliged to respect the bilateral agreements with Lebanon.

Lebanese judicial authorities had not been informed officially of the 33 arrests warrants issued by the Syrian judiciary. Former Major General Jamil al-Sayyed said that the first investigative magistrate in Damascus had issued the warrants based on a lawsuit he presented.

A well-informed judicial source told The Daily Star that in line with international laws, Syria’s Foreign Ministry should inform its Lebanese counterpart of the warrants and it would in turn notify the Justice Ministry, which would refer the issue to the Lebanese judiciary.

The source said the judiciary would consider the validity of the warrants after requesting that the judicial documents related to the case be handed to it by the Syrian judiciary.

After evaluating the case, the Lebanese judiciary would decide whether to implement the arrest warrants but even in that case, it would not hand any individuals to the Syrian authorities since the alleged crime took place on Lebanese territories and by Lebanese citizens.

The Future Movement statement added that the reported issue “was a backward and negative step that was set as a stumbling block facing Lebanese state officials,” particularly President Michel Sleiman and Hariri, who sought to strengthen ties with Damascus.

In a sharper tone, Hariri’s ally, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea accused Damascus of seeking to abolish the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) by exploiting the issue of false witnesses.

Geagea questioned the timing of the warrants, particularly that they came in anticipation of a Lebanese proposal by the Justice Ministry to determine a legal framework to investigate false witnesses in the probe into the killing of former premier Rafiq Hariri. “Are intentions behind the Syrian move true with regard to uncovering false witnesses or an attempt to attack the STL?” he asked.

But Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt maintained his support of the warrants while criticizing March 14 parties for hampering ties with Damascus.

Following a meeting with the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Jumblatt expressed his surprise over statements that warrants were aimed against Hariri “who himself confirmed the presence of false witnesses.”

Meanwhile, Egypt and Saudi Arabia stressed their support for the UN tribunal on the assassination of Lebanon's ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and said efforts to sabotage it will fail, the foreign ministry said.

Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki was speaking after a brief trip to Jeddah with Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, who had talks with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal focusing on Lebanon.

The two ministers underlined "the necessity for all parties to engage in stabilizing Lebanon and supporting its government and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon" (STL) created by the United Nations in 2007, Zaki said.

"The position of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is clear: attempts to ensure the failure of the tribunal's work will not succeed," added Zaki of two of the United States' closest Arab allies in the Middle East.

Last week’s meeting came with tensions high in Lebanon over unconfirmed reports the UN tribunal is set to indict members of the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, in connection with Hariri's murder in 2005.

A retired Lebanese general, Jamil Sayyed, has alleged the UN probe is based on fabricated testimony aimed at implicating Syria and its supporters in Lebanon in Hariri's killing.

Damascus has consistently denied any involvement in the assassination, and last month, in a stunning about-turn, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he had been wrong to point the finger at Syria.

Sayyed was one of four security generals who served four years in prison on suspicion of involvement in the murder. All four were released last year for lack of evidence.

On the other hand, Israel is urging international diplomats to push Lebanon into canceling next week’s visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, media reports said.

Ahmadinejad is expected to arrive in Lebanon on Wednesday, October 13 for his first official visit to the country since assuming office in 2005. His two-day stay has been greeted with outright condemnation from Israel, which has labeled the act “provocative,” Haaretz newspaper reported.

Over the past week, Israel has sent messages to Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Sleiman through UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the US and French governments, warning that the visit should be canceled as it would undermine regional stability and the Middle East peace talks, the paper reported.

National Security Council adviser Uzi Arad is also thought to have urged his French counterpart Jean-David Levitte to pass on Israel’s condemnation of the visit last month during a visit to Paris.

The escalation of diplomatic posturing comes after media reports emerged that Ahmadinejad was intending to visit southern Lebanese villages of Bint Jbeil and Maroun al-Ras, only a few kilometers from the Israeli side of the Blue Line. He is also said to be looking to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers from the fence, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported.

The possibility of border escalations has prompted Israel to scale up its military preparations and security services are said to be conducting security evaluations ahead of the visit, Haaretz added.

In a fresh wave of attacks aimed at the US and Israel, Ahmadinejad again accused the two states of complicity in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“May the undertaker take you, your tables … away as you have dragged the world in mud,” Iranian state television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

The US is reported to have already asked Lebanon to cancel Ahmadinejad’s visit after his speech at the UN headquarters last month in which he blamed the US for the 2001 terrorist attacks. “They told the Lebanese that it wouldn’t be wise to facilitate Ahmadinejad’s visit to the border,” Haaretz quoted an anonymous high-ranking Israeli official as saying.

The paper also claimed Israeli authorities expected Hezbollah to launch a string of terrorist attacks in revenge for the assassination, in Damascus in 2008, of top commander Imad Mughniyeh.

Separate reports emerged last week that Syrian President Bashar Assad has asked Ahmadinejad to postpone the visit in order to calm tensions, but no evidence of this divide was visible, following Assad’s one-day visit to Tehran.

“The strengthening of the resistance movement will encourage other countries to join this bloc, which would eventually lead toward stabilizing regional peace,” the pair said in a statement published by Syrian state media.

Assad also won praise from his Iranian counterpart for Syria’s “resistance against arrogant powers, defense of the rights of the Palestinian and Lebanese nations, and his key role in the stability and tranquility of regional countries,” Press TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

The Lebanese government has yet to respond affirmatively to the state visit, with the country’s political establishment reportedly divided on the issue.

Ahmadinejad is expected to meet with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during his visit.

Joseph Maalouf, Lebanese Forces MP for Zahle, has also welcomed the visit, provided it does not carry any sectarian undertones or intentions, a charge Ahmadinejad has denied.

Fares Souaid, coordinator of the March 14 alliance, however, last week sternly criticized the trip.

“Ahmadinejad through this visit is saying that Beirut is under Iranian influence and that Lebanon is an Iranian base on the Mediterranean,” he told AFP.

“The message is that Iran is at the border with Israel.”