Hariri assassination suspects freed in blow to Syria's opponents

In an unexpected twist, the UN tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has ordered the release of four senior Lebanese officials.

Mahmoud Tawil/AP
Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyed (c.) is welcomed home by several hundred cheering supporters in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, Apr. 29.

An international tribunal probing the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Wednesday ordered the release of four Lebanese generals, a key development in the four-year investigation.

The generals were all Syrian-backed heads of Lebanese security and intelligence departments at the time of Mr. Hariri's murder in February 2005. They were imprisoned without charge in summer 2005 on the advice of the then-chief investigator of the United Nations-led investigation.

Their release is a blow to Syria's opponents, who hoped that if the one-time pro-Syrian generals had been indicted by the tribunal, it would have placed further pressure on Damascus.

On the other hand, the tribunal's findings will encourage Syria as it attempts to woo the United States. It will also bolster the Hezbollah-led parliamentary opposition in Lebanon, which is backed by Syria and looks increasingly well-placed to win the general election on June 7.

The four senior officers are Jamil Sayyed, former head of the general security department, Mustafa Hamdan, former head of the presidential guard, Ali Hajj, former head of the International Security Forces, and Raymond Azar, the former military intelligence chief.

The tribunal, which is based in The Hague in the Netherlands and began functioning on March 1, gave Daniel Bellemare, the chief prosecutor, until April 27 to decide whether to indict or free the four generals.

The decision to release the officers was announced midday Wednesday by Daniel Fransen, the pretrial judge, during a hearing of the tribunal. Mr. Fransen said there was insufficient evidence to continue holding the suspects.

Fireworks were set off around parts of Lebanon, and a crowd gathered outside the gates of Roumieh prison in the hills above Beirut, where the four officers have lived in solitary confinement.

"Saad Hariri loves his father and wants the truth in his father's case. But some of the people surrounding him do not want the truth in the Hariri assassination," General Sayyed said on being released from prison. Saad Hariri is Rafik Hariri's son and political heir, who heads the largest block in the 128-seat parliament.

Mr. Hariri told reporters that the tribunal's decision on the four generals proved its impartiality.

"I welcome any decision taken by the Special Tribunal, whether related to the four generals or anything else.... The Lebanese people paid a dear price to establish the tribunal: martyrs, disruption of the state, internal conflicts, and accusations of treason. We proved today that the tribunal that we asked for is honest and unpoliticized," he said.

There had been speculation that one or more of the generals would escape indictment, but the release of all four without charge has come as a surprise. A March 2005 UN report into the Hariri assassination effectively accused General Hajj of covering up the crime scene by having evidence removed and filling in the crater caused by the huge truck bomb.

The tribunal's decision raises some intriguing questions: Has the tribunal, after four years of investigating, uncovered nothing of significance, or has the focus of the investigation shifted away from Syria and its close Lebanese allies toward a possible new culprit?

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