By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005 6:00 PM
UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 15 -- A Belgian prosecutor who oversees war crimes investigations for the International Criminal Court has emerged as the leading candidate to take over the U.N. probe of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, according to senior U.N. diplomats and officials.
Serge Brammertz, the deputy prosecutor of the Hague-based tribunal, would replace German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is planning to step down after leading the investigation for the past six months. The investigation has implicated members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's inner circle in the killing.
Brammertz has expressed interest in accepting the position but is first seeking approval from his boss, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, and key governments that set up the world criminal court, according to senior diplomats who have spoken to him in recent days.
It remained unclear whether the Bush administration supports Brammertz' candidacy. In the past, the administration has expressed concern about the International Criminal Court, particularly that it could be used to launch politically motivated investigations into U.S. troops engaged in military and peacekeeping operations. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is one of the administration's most outspoken critics of the court.
Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Hussein, praised Brammertz as "a remarkably good and competent investigator and prosecutor. It comes as no surprise that the international community, when searching for someone to undertake this difficult assignment, would look at him."
The Belgian magistrate met privately with Secretary General Kofi Annan Wednesday to discuss the job, as the U.N. Security Council gathered to consider a U.S.-backed resolution to extend the mandate of the Mehlis commission for six months, through June 15. Annan said he is planning to announce Mehlis's successor as early as next week.
Mehlis's team maintains that there is "probable cause" to believe that senior pro-Syria Lebanese and Syrian officials planned and carried out the Valentine Day killing of Hariri and 22 others. On Monday, the investigative commission disclosed witness testimony charging Syria with interfering in the probe by burning its intelligence archives and by intimidating a witness who had accused Syrian officials of planning Hariri's assassination.
The new draft resolution, which is sponsored by the France, the United States and Britain, would authorize the U.N. investigative commission to provide "technical assistance" to Lebanese authorities who are probing a wave of terror attacks in the country over the past 14 months. It would also ask Annan to recommend ways to formally expand the commission's mandate to investigate other political killings, and would ask Annan and Lebanon to work out the details of a criminal tribunal "of an international character" to prosecute Hariri's killers.
Brammertz, a former Belgian prosecutor and scholar, has experience prosecuting organized crime and drug cases. He has also written extensively on terrorism and corruption for academic journals. He is currently overseeing the tribunal's investigation strategy in Congo and northern Uganda, where the court is pursuing its first war crimes investigations.
Annan began seriously considering Brammertz after another Belgian prosecutor, Damien Van der Meersch, declined an offer last week to head the commission.
But some diplomats cautioned that the Brammertz candidacy could still be derailed if the United States opposes him or African countries complain that his departure from the International Criminal Court would hinder its effort to pursue war criminals in Africa.