Mon, Jan 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Syria targets official for treason trial

`LYING' The Justice Ministry is preparing a case against Abdul-Halim Khaddam for saying that the president threatened former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri

AP , DAMASCUS

Lebanese men watch former Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam in an interview with the Dubai-based al-Arabiya television station on Saturday in Damascus.

PHOTO: AFP

Syria's parliament recommended on Saturday that former vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam be tried for high treason after he claimed President Bashar Assad had threatened a former Lebanese prime minister months before he was assassinated.

The bill recommending the trial was passed unanimously at the end of a day-long parliamentary session during which members accused Khaddam of treason and lying. The measure was sent to the Justice Ministry so it could prepare a case against Khaddam.

Faisal Kalthoum, head of the parliamentary Constitutional and Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Syrian state television that the recommendation was binding on the justice ministry.

"According to the law, what Khaddam did constituted treason and commencement to commit a crime that affects Syria's security and safety," he said.

Khaddam's allegations prompted an outcry among official circles on Saturday.

He told the pan-Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya TV on Friday night that Assad warned former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in August 2004 against pushing for a new president in Lebanon. Assad planned to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian whom Hariri was known to oppose.

In a long interview with al-Arabiya, Khaddam quoted the Syrian president as telling Hariri: "You want to bring a [new] president in Lebanon ... I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."

Syrian media, which are tightly controlled by the government, did not repeat the quote on Saturday but carried rebuttals, as it is known that many Syrians watch al-Arabiya.

Syrian state TV broadcast a report from its correspondent in Paris, where Khaddam gave the interview as he has been living there for several months.

"It seems Mr Khaddam has submitted his credentials to join the well-known list of false witnesses against Syria," the unidentified correspondent said.

Syria has frequently referred to false witnesses since a UN commission reported that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials were involved in the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in central Beirut in February. Syria denied the charge and has tried to discredit those who gave evidence to the commission.

In Syria's parliament, which is dominated by the government's supporters, numerous legislators called Khaddam a traitor.

As with the media, Khaddam's original remarks were not repeated, but alluded to.

"I demand that Khaddam stand trial for conspiracy against the motherland," shouted a female legislator, Suad Bakkour.

Speaker Mahmoud Al-Abrash told the assembly that the parliament's switchboard had been choked by calls from citizens who wanted Khaddam to be prosecuted for treason.

Khaddam, who became vice president in 1984, resigned in June. He was the nominal leader of Syria for a short period between the death of Assad's father, Hafez Assad, in June 2000 and Bashar's taking power.

Khaddam was also Syria's point man in Lebanon for many years, until 1998. A close friend of Hariri, he was the only Syrian official to attend his funeral.

In the al-Arabiya interview, Khaddam strongly criticized Assad's government, saying the ruling Baath Party had been reduced to vindicating "decisions made by the president."

He also said the government had made many mistakes.

Khaddam said he was not accusing Syria of complicity in Hariri's assassination. He said finding the culprits was the business of the UN commission, in which he had full confidence.

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