Syria has issued arrest warrants in absentia for 33 judges, politicians and journalists on charges of false testimony given during the UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
AFP - Syria has ordered the arrest of 33 people over false testimony given in the UN-backed probe into the assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, a general held over the killing and his lawyers said.
Jamil Sayyed, the former head of Lebanon's security services (pictured), said the top investigating judge in Damascus had issued arrest warrants "against judges, security officers, politicians, journalists and other Lebanese, Arab and foreign officials and individuals."
Among those named in the warrants is Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who led the early stages of the UN investigation into Hariri's 2005 assassination in a massive bombing, Sayyed said in a weekend statement.
The Lebanese defendants include the head of Lebanon's police, Ashraf Rifi, deputy Marwan Hamadeh, top prosecutor Saeed Mirza and former justice minister Charles Rizk.
Syria's former vice president, Abdel Halim Khadda, who has joined the opposition and is now living in exile in France, is also a defendant.
The warrants are sure to strike a blow to relations between Damascus and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- son of the slain leader -- who has sought in the past year to mend fences with Syria, observers said.
They also come with tensions high in Lebanon over unconfirmed reports the UN tribunal is set to indict members of the militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, in connection with Hariri's murder.
"This is a shocking development in terms of relations between the prime minister and the Syrian leadership," Oqab Sakr, a deputy in Hariri's pro-Western parliamentary majority, said on Monday,
But Ali Abdel Karim Ali, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, said the warrants were not politically motivated or aimed at scuttling relations between the two countries.
"This is a purely legal case," he said. "The issue is not linked to bilateral relations between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Syria.
"I think Hariri is aware of that and our relations with him continue."
Several observers said the warrants carried no legal weight in Lebanon as the crime in question took place on Lebanese soil and the complainant as well as most of the defendants are Lebanese.
"By doing this, the Syrians are trying to pressure the government to change its position on the STL," said Samir al-Jisr, another deputy in Hariri's coalition, referring to the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
"But we cannot back down on the tribunal, even if we wanted to," Jisr added.
Sayyed in his complaint alleged the UN probe was 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, 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 with the murder. All four were released last year for lack of evidence.
He filed his complaint in Damascus last October on grounds that five of the defendants are Syrians and because Lebanese officials refused to consider the case, referring it to the UN-backed court which also rejected it.
Lebanese newspapers on Monday carried gloomy headlines saying the arrest warrants were a clear message from Damascus to Hariri and amounted, according to the French-language daily L'Orient-Le-Jour, to a "declaration of war".
"The prime target of these warrants is the tenant at the Grand Serail," said the Arabic-language daily Al-Akhbar, referring to Hariri.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning