DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria's ruling Baath Party stripped the country's former vice president of membership and joined parliament in demanding his trial on a charge of high treason, the official news agency SANA reported Sunday.
The move came two days after former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam said in a television interview from Paris that Syria's leader threatened former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri months before Hariri was assassinated in a truck bombing.
Khaddam told the Al-Arabiya satellite channel that Syrian President Bashar Assad warned Hariri in August 2004 that he would "crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision" to extend the term of Lebanon's pro-Syrian president.
While Khaddam said in the interview that he planned to return to Syria with his family to write a book, it was unclear if he would go back facing a treason charge. Conviction would bring the death penalty.
"Khaddam has joined the band of enemies who are targeting the country and its attitudes," the Baath Party statement said. "Khaddam has betrayed the party, the country and the (Arab) nation. The National Leadership has decided to dismiss Khaddam from the party and put him on trial."
The French Foreign Ministry confirmed Khaddam has been in France for several months but declined to give any details on his whereabouts or whether he has asked for protection.
Syria's push for the three-year extension of Emile Lahoud's presidency in September 2004 — which Hariri opposed — was considered responsible for the crisis in Lebanese-Syrian relations that preceded Hariri's assassination last Feb. 14.
Widespread street protests by Lebanese and international pressure forced Assad's government to end a nearly three-decade Syrian troop presence in its neighbor.
A United Nations probe has since implicated top Syrian security officials in the bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in central Beirut. Assad's government has denied being involved.
In Khaddam's first extensive TV interview since he left Syria several months ago, the former leader 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."
The decision to strip Khaddam of party membership was announced in a statement issued by the Baath Party's National Leadership, the country's highest decision-making authority, which is headed by Assad.
On Saturday, parliament passed a binding measure that Khaddam be tried for high treason, a charge that is reserved for high officials and carries the death penalty.
Khaddam made his comments as he declared a formal break with Assad, citing corruption and the president's failure to institute reforms.
Khaddam, a one-time Baath Party stalwart, became a vice president in 1984 and resigned in June. He was the nominal leader in Syria for a short period after Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, died in June 2000 and was Syria's point man on Lebanon for many years, until 1998.