A man claiming to be a former Syrian intelligence agent in Lebanon has said on Syrian state television that Lebanese officials tortured him and offered bribes to persuade him to present false testimony against Syria to a UN commission investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
The man, Hussam Taher Hussam, said he had been held in Lebanon by supporters of Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister, and subjected to torture and drug injections to force him to testify.
Saad Hariri, he said, offered him US$1.3 million if he would lie about senior Syrian officials. Hussam did not say whether he had accepted any money.
Hussam, a slim, bespectacled Syrian Kurd, looked composed and unemotional as he spoke on a program originally broadcast on Sunday.
He said that Hariri and his associates had asked him to tell investigators that he had seen a truck used in the assassination at a Syrian military camp, and to present false evidence implicating Maher Assad, the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law, in the killing in February.
"It was a ploy," Hussam said, adding that Hariri and his associates were desperate to accuse Syria. Syria agreed last week to allow five of its intelligence officials to travel to Vienna to be interviewed by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor leading the inquiry. His findings are to be presented to the Security Council in mid-December.
In an interim version of the report, released last month, he presented evidence that strongly suggested that high-level Syrian officials were involved in planning the assassination.
Hussam was not identified as a witness in the interim report. However, the commission issued a statement confirming that he was a witness, saying he had come forward voluntarily.
He told investigators several times that he feared that Syrian authorities would take revenge on him or his family, the statement said.
Saad Hariri's office issued a statement denying that there had ever been any contact between Hussam and Hariri or any of his associates.
Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst, said that Hussam's TV appearance was widely mocked in Lebanon as a clumsy attempt by President Assad and his allies to discredit the investigation.
"The image that pops up in my mind is from Maoist China," Fawaz said. "Mao used to bring people forward and force them to publicly denounce themselves, and that's exactly what's happening now in Syria."
But Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma historian who is in Syria on a Fulbright research fellowship, said that Hussam's story was playing well.
"Everyone in Syria is watching it, and they're very excited," he said. "They love this stuff. They want to believe it."