Cover-up or an effort to keep the Iranian-backed group angle under wraps?
The Bulgarian state prosecution has decided not to charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2012 bomb attack at the Burgas airport that killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver and wounded 32 other Israelis, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Instead, the prosecutor indicted the two men allegedly involved in the attack as if they were terrorists or even regular criminals who acted without connection to an organization. The word “Hezbollah” does not appear in the indictment.
In addition, the indictment does not mention standard terrorism offenses such as “acting as part of a terrorist organization” or connecting the murder offense to terrorism. Instead, it makes a brief reference to Bulgarian Penal Code Section 108(a) regarding disturbing the public order.
Under Section 108(a), anyone who by causing a “disturbance or fear among the population” or who threatens or forces “a competent authority… to perform or omit part of his/her duties, commits a crime,” in addition to other crimes they may have committed.
Sources close to the case say that when the Bulgarian prosecutor on the case was confronted with these anomalies, he claimed that no one provided him with evidence demonstrating Hezbollah’s involvement.
This, however, is in direct contradiction to evidence that came to light immediately after the attack. Bulgaria’s interior minister at the time, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, said in 2012, “We have established that the two [accused] were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah.” He also said, “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
In 2013, Tsvetanov’s successor, Tsvetlin Yovchev, told reporters before a commemoration ceremony, “There are clear signs that say Hezbollah is behind the Burgas bombing.”
Also in 2013, responding to a discussion about Bulgarian-Israeli relations on Bulgarian National Television, then-foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov said that the government would not have issued a statement linking Hezbollah to the Burgas attack if it did not have solid evidence.
Evidence produced by Bulgaria’s investigation into the Burgas bombing even led to the European Union placing Hezbollah’s armed wing on its blacklist, a move that was supported at the time by Mladenov, today the United Nation’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
The Post contacted Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry and Prosecutor’s Office for a response to allegations that the prosecution was covering up Hezbollah’s involvement in the attack and ignoring evidence referred to by its ministers.
In response, Milena Petrova from the Foreign Ministry said on behalf of the prosecution that “the content of the indictment is completely within the competences of the prosecutor who is in charge of the case.
Neither Tsvetan Tsvetanov, in his capacity as then-interior minister, nor any other ministry or incumbent minister pay whatever regard to the decisions and legal acts of the judiciary.
“The executive and the judiciary powers are separated and independent of each other. The prosecutor’s office is part of the judiciary of the Republic of Bulgaria,” the statement concluded.
The statement does not deny the existence of evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement.
Instead of denying the existence of such evidence, the statement contends that the prosecutor’s office is in a better position than former Bulgarian ministers to decide what issues should be included in an indictment and what issues should not be.
Put differently, the Bulgarian prosecutor’s statement essentially acknowledges that there is a contradiction between the indictment it filed and the statements made by senior Bulgarian ministers in 2012 and 2013.
SINCE 2013, the political parties running the Bulgarian government have changed three times, with swings ranging from a pro-Western direction to a more pro-Russian orientation.
The Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who reentered government in 2017, served as prime minister during the Burgas attack. Borisov’s pro-EU party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria formed a coalition with the United Patriots, an amalgam of three far-right extremist parties.
The new ruling parties are generally known to be less sympathetic to Israel and more concerned about a confrontation with Hezbollah. Ataka, one of the right-wing extremist parties in Borisov’s coalition, adopted its name from Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack).
The European Commission has frequently reprimanded Bulgaria for failing to root out corruption and failing to modernize its judiciary.
Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index named Bulgaria the most corrupt EU member state. The pro-Russia Socialist party said the government has failed to confront high-level misconduct and graft.
Last week, the Bulgarian government survived a no-confidence vote in the parliament by 131-103. The parliamentary row was over the failure of the center-right government to tackle widespread graft.
FORMER BULGARIAN officials and the EU are not the only officials who have confirmed Hezbollah’s involvement in the 2012 terrorist attack.
Bulgarian officials and others leaked significant details relating to the investigation following the attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the past that the Bulgarian findings made it clear that Hezbollah was “directly responsible for the heinous act in Burgas.”
A flood of media reports on multiple continents have discussed the roles of the defendants, Lebanese-Australian national Meliad Farah and Lebanese-Canadian national El Hajj Hassan, in the attack. There are also US court documents from other terrorism- and Hezbollah-related cases that have confirmed that the third attacker, who died in the attack, French-Lebanese national Jacques Felipe Martin (also known as Muhammad Hassan el-Husseini), was also connected to Hezbollah.
The men are alleged to have entered Bulgaria using false drivers licenses printed in Lebanon.
In 2013, the Bulgarian government presented evidence to the EU linking a Hezbollah operative’s ownership of a printer to doctored documents that enabled the 2012 terrorist attack.
US analysts concluded that the bombers belonged to Hezbollah, and Farah and Hassan have both been named “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” by the Department of State under Executive Order 132246.
Husseini was connected to the two living attackers by a SIM card and forged documents.
Much of this information was disclosed at a meeting to the CP931, a special European working group related to confronting terrorism, according to an EU diplomat.
In 2017, the FBI arrested Samer El-Debek for his participation in a Hezbollah cell in the United States.
Debek was reportedly trained as a bomb-maker for Hezbollah.
In his May 2017 statement under oath as part of the indictment against Debek, FBI Agent Daniel Ganci said Debek “received extensive training as a bomb-maker, has a high degree of technical sophistication in the area, and was trained in techniques and methods similar to those used to construct the improvised explosive device used in Hezbollah’s 2012 Burgas, Bulgaria, bus bombing.”
According to the statement, Debek told FBI agents that he was familiar with the 2012 Hezbollah attack on the Israeli tour bus in Burgas and that the bomber Husseini was connected to his family (his aunt’s nephew). Debek identified a photograph of Husseini and said that he knew of Husseini’s membership in Hezbollah’s External Security unit, “the same unit in which Debek said he was a member.”
Farah and Hassan have not been taken into custody despite Interpol search warrants being issued against them.
THE TRIAL, which is being held in absentia of the defendants, was delayed for years, partially in order for the numerous Israeli families involved to gather evidence and coordinate their efforts, and partially because of changes in Bulgarian law.
There was also a delay with the court hearing and a rejection of a request to hear Israeli witnesses in Israel without the need to travel to Bulgaria. The Israeli victims and their families are represented by lawyer Yaki Rand.
The trial finally commenced on January 17 with a number of Bulgarian witnesses talking about the events surrounding the attack.
Even as Hezbollah’s role and the more serious terrorism offenses were left out of the indictment, the Bulgarian prosecutor made statements to the press on January 17 emphasizing the terrorist side to the case.
Sources have indicated that this continues the prosecutor’s fine line of vaguely acknowledging some terrorism in the case as a matter of maintaining minimal credibility, considering it was a major bombing event, but omitting Hezbollah’s involvement.
Why has Bulgaria’s prosecution decided to keep Hezbollah out of the case in contradiction of its former ministers, the EU and the US? Why did the specific prosecutor on the case say he did not receive any evidence about Hezbollah? Could that mean that higher-ups did not pass on all of the evidence to him? Are the motivations part of a problematic cover-up, either ideological or based on fear of retaliation from Hezbollah, or might they be related to issues of maintaining the secrecy of intelligence sources or some more understandable reason? These questions remain unanswered, but the ongoing trial, with its next date set for February 6, may continue to shed light on the issue even as the prosecution seems intent on burying it.