The Special Tribunal for Lebanon resumed Thursday to hear evidence from a onetime friend of Sami Issa, an identity prosecutors claim was a cover invented by defendant Mustafa Badreddine. The witness is the latest in a string of individuals who knew Issa to give testimony, following a former bodyguard and a disgruntled employee, as prosecutors attempt to make the case that Issa and Badreddine were the same man.
Badreddine is one of five men being tried in absentia for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005. Prosecutors say all five were linked to Hezbollah; Badreddine has been described as a senior military commander in the group.
The witness testified that he knew Issa socially for around eight or nine years, and reiterated a number of details put forward by other witnesses. He said Issa employed bodyguards and walked with a limp, that he carried a gun in his car, and did not divulge details about himself or his family. He added that Issa was camera-shy, and did not attend events he sponsored by his company, sending an employee to represent him.
The witness testified that he and his friends called Issa “Safi,” and though unable to conclusively identify him in a prosecutorial photograph of Badreddine, said it looked like him. Prosecutors have repeatedly asked witnesses to identify Issa in two photographs they allege depict Badreddine. But the pictures appear to have been taken years, if not decades, apart, and the faces bear little resemblance to one another. The witness was unable to make any identification from the second.
Despite the duration of their friendship, the witness was able to provide few concrete details about Issa. He remembered that Issa had mentioned a brother and a sister, and surmised that Issa was Shiite having heard him reference Ashoura, a holiday of great significance to the sect. At the time they were acquainted, the witness estimated Issa was 35-40, at least 10 years older than he and his other friends, a fact jumped on by Prosecutor Graeme Cameron, who contended Issa’s relationship to the group was strategic.
“I would like you to infer that he did it for information gathering,” Cameron told the bench, adding that he would elaborate this theory later in the proceedings.
The witness said the group mostly played cards, barbecued, went to the beach or smoked nargileh, and confirmed that Issa sometimes brought his own water pipe. He said conversations largely revolved around women or where to go out at night, and only rarely touched on politics.
Trial Chamber Judge Micheline Braidy asked how Issa had reacted on hearing of Hariri’s death. “We were all very upset,” the witness testified. “The same thing, he was also very sad.” But he said they spoke about the matter briefly, and not in any detail.
He said he had remained in contact with Issa during Israel’s summer 2006 war against Lebanon, but that Issa became increasingly unavailable in 2009, before breaking off contact entirely in 2010, disconnecting his numbers. By 2010, Badreddine’s name had been leaked to media in connection with the case. The STL officially announced he was a suspect in July 2011.
“He stopped calling us and he disappeared, that’s all we knew. We did ask about him, but nobody knew.”
The tribunal resumes Friday afternoon for the Al-Akhbar newspaper and its editor-in-chief. Cross-examination of the witness who testified Thursday begins Monday.