Lebanon has released four generals who have been held for nearly four years without charge over the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri following a ruling by a UN-backed court.
The four, considered pro-Syrian, were escorted separately out of Roumieh prison on the outskirts of Beirut in a convoy of vehicles after The Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon said there was insufficient evidence to charge them.
They are the former head of the presidential guard, Mustafa Hamdan, 53, security services director Jamil Sayyed, 58, domestic security chief Ali Hajj, 52, and military intelligence chief Raymond Azar, 56.
Speaking from their respective homes after their release, the generals said they had been vindicated by the UN-backed court and insisted they had nothing to do with Hariri\’s 2005 murder in a massive car-bombing that also killed 22 others.
“Four generals were freed today but the only remaining inmate is Rafiq Hariri and his jailer is Lebanon\’s justice system,” Sayyed told a crowd of cheering supporters outside his home that included several MPs from the militant group Hezbollah.
“I thank everyone who stood by us, and above all Hassan Nasrallah,” he said, referring to the head of the Shiite Muslim militant group. “Never in the history of Lebanon have people been jailed for four years with no charge or evidence.”
Celebratory gunfire broke out as Sayyed arrived at his home while a Hezbollah band played on and 21 sheep were slaughtered.
The generals\’ release comes at a sensitive time as Lebanon prepares for crucial parliamentary elections in June that will pit the Western-backed parliamentary majority headed by Hariri\’s son Saad against a Hezbollah-led alliance backed by Syria and Iran.
The Hariri tribunal has been at the centre of a tug-of-war between the country\’s pro- and anti-Syrian factions, with each accusing the other of using the case for political gain.
Saad Hariri told reporters that he welcomed Wednesday\’s decision by the court but stressed that it did not mean the end of the tribunal\’s work.
“This court is here to stay and is not up for bargaining,” he said. “Those who should be fearful today are the killers and no one else.”
In the ruling, the tribunal\’s first since opening its doors on March 1, pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen granted a request by prosecutor Daniel Bellemare who said the available evidence was “not sufficiently credible” to hold the generals.
The generals “cannot at this stage of the investigation be considered as either suspects or accused persons,” said Fransen.”As a result… they do not meet the conditions to be placed in provisional detention.”
The four, held in Lebanon since 2005, were legally in the custody of the special tribunal since Beirut relinquished its jurisdiction in the Hariri case this month.
There are no other suspects held by the tribunal in connection with the case.
“The truth has finally prevailed,” said Sayyed\’s wife, Sawsan. “The truth we wanted, not the truth they fabricated from day one. But it\’s OK, the tables always turn.”
Naji Bustany, the lawyer for Hamdan and Azar, welcomed the ruling but also said it came four years too late.
“After 44 months, justice has been done and it should have been 43 months ago,” Bustany told AFP.
Hezbollah also hailed the ruling.
“Hezbollah welcomes the release of the four generals and congratulates their families after a long arbitrary detention in prison cells without any evidence,” it said in a statement.
It accused its political foes of “flouting all laws and established procedures” and politicising Lebanese jurisdiction.
“The priority should now be to hold accountable and prosecute all those responsible for years of deception and procrastination,” the statement read.