Syria hires British law firm for Hariri assassination inquiry
Hugh Macleod in Damascus and Ewen MacAskill
Saturday November 4, 2006
The Syrian government has hired a well-known British law firm to advise it over the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Matrix Chambers, which has a strong reputation for fighting for human rights and whose lawyers include Cherie Booth, Philippe Sands and Clare Montgomery, was taken on earlier this year after a UN investigation linked members of the Syrian intelligence services to the killing. The UN has threatened Syria with sanctions if it does not cooperate with the investigation.
The firm has represented other dictatorships in the past, notably the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in the House of Lords case during 1998-9.
Ms Montgomery QC, who is leading the team advising Damascus with Mr Sands QC, declined to comment yesterday.
The firm is coy about the relationship with Syria, in part because of the possible damage to its reputation from association with a government whose inner circle has been accused of involvement in murder, which has a poor overall human rights record, and which provides support to militant groups in the Middle East such as the Lebanese-based militia Hizbullah. The small band of dissidents and human rights activists in Damascus criticised Matrix.
The law firm's involvement emerged in the week during which a senior British diplomat made a secret trip to Damascus to explore whether the president, Bashar Assad, is interested in ending his country's estrangement from the west. Mr Sands, who is professor of law at University College London and author of a book challenging the legitimacy of the Iraq war, also visited Mr Assad earlier this year.
The UK government believes Mr Assad is keen to establish good relations with the west but is caught up in faction fighting between those who, like him, favour negotiation, and others who have been emboldened by Hizbullah's success against Israel this summer.
Relations between the west and Syria have been bad for decades but deteriorated sharply after Mr Hariri was killed by a bomb in Beirut in February last year.
Matrix is pressing the Syrian government to comply with UN demands to co-operate with the investigation. The firm is involved primarily with Syria's international obligations rather than the details of who was behind the killing. Another group of British lawyers is preparing the defence case for five Syrian security officials identified by the UN as suspects.
Matrix was chosen by the Syrian embassy in London. Sami Khiyami, the ambassador, in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, described the UK legal system as "extremely advanced and the closest to international law".