The Nick Kaldas bombshell

The statement released yesterday by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announcing that its chief investigator, Naguib “Nick” Kaldas, will be leaving on February 28 is more bad news for the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare. While officially Kaldas is departing because he committed only for one year, and will resume his duties as deputy commissioner of the New South Wales police, there is doubtless more to the matter than that.

How obvious that becomes when reading the tribunal’s statement. If Kaldas’ end of term was scheduled, then why has Bellemare not already started identifying a replacement, as the statement reveals? Then there is the telltale wording suggesting the decision was not routine. The passage indicating Bellemare’s expectation that Kaldas might have renewed his contract, surely possible in itself, was yet indicative at this late date of limited coordination between the investigator and prosecutor.

Then there were the more apparent contradictions, especially Kaldas’ obligatory expression of “optimism” in an investigation he described as “ground breaking”, followed by the jarring intimation that, despite this, he had to return to more pedestrian pursuits in New South Wales. Any investigator worth his salt, like Kaldas, literally lives for a complex, interesting international case like the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Four years into a high-profile affair, chief investigators do not sign on for a year, nor did Bellemare go to the trouble of picking Kaldas for him to clock in for so restricted a period. He hired him to lead an investigation on behalf of a tribunal expected to function for several years.

The statement released by the tribunal is mostly nonsense. Kaldas’ departure is a severe blow to Bellemare’s efforts, another to be added to his forced release of the four generals last April; his inability to foresee, let alone capably contain the repercussions of, the Der Spiegel article last May; and his incomprehensible, and unexplained, decision to declare Muhammad Zuhayr al-Saddiq a person “no longer of interest” to his investigation, when Saddiq was named a suspect in Hariri’s murder, lied under oath, and may have been a Syrian plant to discredit investigators.

This raises the more interesting question of why Kaldas left. We can only speculate, but there are relatively few possible answers. Perhaps the investigator failed to get on well with Bellemare personally, and therefore preferred to go home, as happened with the tribunal’s former registrar, Robin Vincent; or there was fundamental disagreement between Kaldas and Bellemare on the methodology of the investigation; or Kaldas felt that the tribunal would not reach what he deemed to be a successful, or a thorough, outcome; or a combination of these factors.

Whichever reason it is, Bellemare’s delivery of an indictment has again been hampered. We can ruminate further. If Bellemare had been on the verge of issuing an indictment, it is highly unlikely that even personal differences between him and Kaldas would have led to the latter’s leaving at this time. Usually in such situations, a modus vivendi is reached between prosecutor and investigator. Bellemare could have persuaded Kaldas to stay on until an indictment was issued, to avoid undermining their shared objective, and only then would the two have parted ways.

If this conclusion is correct, it means that Bellemare may be further from an indictment than many people believe. It may also imply that Kaldas’ problems have more to do with the mechanics of the investigation and where the trial might lead, or not lead, than anything else.

There was little encouraging in Bellemare’s decision last week to acquiesce in the unfreezing of the assets of Syria’s former intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh. Those assets were frozen at the recommendation of Detlev Mehlis, the first United Nations commissioner looking into the Hariri assassination. At the time, Mehlis had considerable reason to suspect Ghazaleh. In December 2005, the UN commission interviewed the Syrian officer in Vienna, along with colleagues of his, after the Security Council reinforced Mehlis’ mandate. 

The fact that Bellemare permitted the Lebanese authorities to release Ghazaleh’s assets appears to confirm that the prosecutor will not, or cannot, aggressively pursue the Syrian angle in the assassination--therefore that his focus may end up being on those suspects in Lebanon. And yet, from much of the information emerging during the past four years, Syria for a long time remained at the heart of the United Nations inquiry, something evident in reading even the more uninformative reports published by the independent international investigation team.

If today Bellemare is unwilling, or unable, to pursue the Syrian connection, that may be because he inherited a weak dossier from his predecessor, Serge Brammertz. That very accusation has been directed against Brammertz by his detractors, notably Detlev Mehlis. However, in my own research, I heard such criticism echoed by senior Lebanese officials involved in advancing the Hariri investigation and tribunal.

As for Bellemare, part of his responsibility before he became UN commissioner was to accurately assess the effectiveness of the dossier he had received from Brammertz. Bellemare essentially legitimized Brammertz’s activities by taking on the case, and in  doing so must now demonstrate, beyond mere expressions of confidence, that there was something to build on. Yet with no indictment in sight, Bellemare’s judgment is under scrutiny. Kaldas’ exit hardly reassures us on that count.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

  • Nabil Ghandour

    What about Iran. It's clear they have a motive: wanting to overtake the (sunni) arab world by secretly infiltrating it for years: Lebanon ,Syria, Yemen, Quatar, Saudi etc. The Iranians therefore would not like to have a Sunni on par, first-name- basis, and a well received politician at ALL the presidencies of the west, that harriri was. I tend to believe in the iranian-hisballa theory with some Syrian aide of course. But I think Iranians are more implicated than the syrians: hence hisballa 'savage reaction to the international court since the moment of it's inception. Remember the many withdrawals from governments at the mention of the court.

    September 30, 2011

  • shirin

    we are not naive, we are just SCARED. everyone is: politicians and investigators alike. they, we , live in FEAR. Bellemare receives serious threats. In the reign of fear, the wicked and the killers get to escape justive and impunity goes on.... this is so sad for Lebanon, the Lebanese and the sake of the truth... but as to justice, we all know we live in UNJUST world. Justice is utopic. Those who got killed (from Hariri to Eid) will never see justice made. SHAME. and I cannot believe this Ghazali murderer gets to enjoy his assets....

    September 30, 2011

  • rod

    "[P]edestrian pursuits in New South Wales"? The New South Wales Police service is the third largest police organization in the English speaking world. We have 16,000 employees and 13,000 sworn police officers. New South Wales has a population close to 6 million spread across 810,680 square kilometres which is more than double the geographic size of England, Scotland and Wales and comparable to the US state of Texas. It is hard to see how being second in command of such an organisation can be described as "pedestrian".

    January 14, 2010

  • Bachir

    too bad, Hovig is right. this is what Junblat said when Der Speigel talked about Hezbollah's role in Hariri assasination. "We will accept the truth but not Justice"

    January 13, 2010

  • SpidySaidaweh

    I believe enemies collaborate for common goals.. so hovig.. syria is possible but its not alone.

    January 13, 2010

  • Sami


    January 10, 2010

  • Hovig

    Let's face it, these are minor details against one major problem: Who is it? 3 possible criminals a. Syria, b. Hizbullah, c. Extremists. The question is: To what extent our divided society is ready to accept one of these outcomes? I think at anyway the Lebanese will never accept any of these outcomes except one Extremists!

    January 9, 2010

  • Fadi

    So very disapointing. Well, let's just wrap it up. Enough wasting time, effort and money on what is increasingly becoming a gigantic wash-up. I have lost any hope of an objective conclusion to this investigation. Who does Bellamare think we are? Gullible morons? He may be right if we keep analysing every step of this masqerade as if it were the work of a prophet. Let's face it, the criminals have been smarter than the naive bunch (me included) who thought that somehow truth would prevail. I am very upset, but heck, may be they're so smart and we're so naive that they deserve to escape justice.

    January 8, 2010