Prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon marched out another former acquaintance of Sami Issa Tuesday, as they continue to make their case that the name was used as a cover by defendant Mustafa Badreddine.
Prosecutors allege that Badreddine posed as Sami Issa, a wealthy jeweler, in order to conduct surveillance activities. Badreddine serves as a military commander in Hezbollah, and is being tried in absentia for coordinating the Valentine’s Day assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Four other men linked with the group are also on trial for their involvement in the bombing.
The witness testified that he met Issa in 2002 or 2003, when he was a student at the Lebanese American University. He said he believed Issa was studying at the time, but conceded he never saw him in class or heard him mention homework or exams.
The witness confirmed a number of physical details about Issa, saying that he walked with a limp, and gave details about what he wore, what they talked about, and the haunts they frequented together. He testified that Issa owned a boat and a number of luxury vehicles, and traveled with bodyguards. He also recalled that Issa kept a machine gun in his car, and drew a picture of it for investigators.
The witness also testified that Issa told him outright that he was Shiite, something a number of other witnesses said they believed to be true but could not confirm. He said Issa would sometimes visit Syria, but had never given any particular reason for doing so.
The witness said that when he first met Issa, he was in his early 20s, as were most of his friends. But Issa was much older than the rest of the group, perhaps in his early 30s, and held different political views. The witness said that while most of his friends supported Hariri, and were against extending the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, Issa took the opposite view.
Prosecutors took the witness to a number of other political references he made in text messages to Issa, with whom he communicated heavily in 2004 and the first half of 2005. Like many of the witnesses who have testified about Issa, they progressively lost touch toward the end of the decade. Some of their exchanges seemed to directly contradict the witness’ contention that he was uninterested in politics.
In October 2004, Issa texted the witness: “PR appointed GZ minister of internal affairs because of the current threat.” Judge David Re suggested, and the witness granted, that this could refer to the appointment of Ghazi Kanaan by Bashar Assad that month. Kanaan headed Syrian intelligence in Lebanon for 20 years. He allegedly shot himself in Damascus in 2005, an hour after appearing on Lebanese radio and denying his involvement in Hariri’s death.
The witness texted Issa later that month to tell him Hariri’s government had resigned. In January 2005, he informed Issa that someone had taken legal action against Kanaan’s successor, Rustom Ghazaleh. Ghazaleh has been accused by a number of witnesses of directly threatening Hariri in the weeks before his death.
Prosecutors drew particular attention to a late-night call between the pair a day before the assassination. The witness contended that he and Issa spoke extensively about the “olive oil incident.” Hariri’s rivals at the time claimed that the leader’s social welfare association was distributing olive oil to residents of Beirut as part of his election campaign a few months ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May. The witness said Issa defended Hariri’s position.
The witness maintained that politics were of no interest to him as a young man, and that the two were just sharing and discussing topical news. Prosecutor Graeme Cameron drew attention to one last exchange of texts, sent as the witness was being interviewed by police in the aftermath of the bombing.
“There’s captain in the gendarmerie asking me why you are powerful,” he texted. Issa replied, “Because I drink Red Bull.”
Defense counsel will not begin cross-examination of the witness until January, due to the recent submission of potentially relevant documents by prosecutors. The tribunal will reconvene Wednesday to hear evidence from Nicole Blanch, an associate analyst for the office of the prosecutor.