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Syrian President Rejects Cooperation with Hariri Tribunal

10 May 2007

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he may not cooperate with a U.N.-backed court to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

President Assad told the Syrian parliament he would not cooperate with the U.N. tribunal if it would undermine Syria's sovereignty.

"We consider the international tribunal to be a matter between Lebanon and the United Nations," he said. "We have nothing to do with it. We also consider any cooperation requested from Syria … any cooperation that compromises Syrian sovereignty is totally rejected."

The United Nations and the Lebanese government have been attempting to set up the international court to try suspects in the 2005 car-bomb killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 other people. Syrian officials could be called before the tribunal as witnesses or put on trial themselves. The commission investigating the bombing issued an interim report implicating several senior Syrian officials.

Mr. Assad told parliament that Syria was cooperating with the commission, but that Syrian law must continue to protect Syrian citizens. He has repeatedly stressed that he believes only Syrian courts should have jurisdiction over Syrians.

The international tribunal would consist of both Lebanese and foreign judges, and would be based outside Lebanon.

The issue of the international court has paralyzed Lebanese politics for months. The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora signed a deal with the United Nations last year to set up the tribunal, but the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament has refused to call the legislature into session to ratify the deal.

Opposition protesters have been camping outside the prime minister's office since November, calling for what they term a national unity government. Lebanese opposition leaders deny that the tribunal is central to their protest, but most analysts believe the issue is a key part of Lebanon's political crisis.

In his address to the Syrian parliament, President Assad also said there has been "no progress" toward peace with Israel. He said the Israeli government is "under pressure from the United States" not to negotiate with Syria.

Syria has repeatedly called for restarting the Israeli-Syrian peace process and holding talks over the disputed Golan Heights, but Israel has so far rejected the idea. There have been reports from Israel, however, that some members of the Israeli government believe Mr. Assad is serious and think talks should resume.

Mr. Assad told lawmakers, "Israel is not ready for peace."

As he spoke, a Syrian court was sentencing a leading dissident to 12 years in prison.

The court convicted pro-reform activist Kamal Labwani of undermining national security. He was arrested in 2005 after he returned from a trip to Washington where he met with U.S. officials.

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