Four Lebanese generals with ties to Syrian security services were freed Wednesday for lack of evidence after spending nearly four years in custody on suspicion of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
A United Nations-backed tribunal ordered the release of the generals, who were being held in a Beirut prison. The decision cast more uncertainty over whether there will be justice in an attack that shook Lebanon and whose tremors are being felt today as the nation’s fractious political parties prepare for parliamentary elections.
“The four generals will immediately be released,” pretrial Judge Daniel Fransen declared from the tribunal’s headquarters in the Netherlands. The judge said a key witness recanted a statement alleging that the generals had a hand in planning a massive suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 other people.
The four generals -- Mustafa Hamdan, who was head of the presidential guard; Jamil Sayyed, security services director; Ali Hajj, domestic security chief; and Raymond Azar, military intelligence chief -- have been in jail without formal charges since 2005 under orders of the Lebanese judiciary.
A U.N. investigation team said shortly after the slaying that it had evidence that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were involved. Syria has denied any involvement. Subsequent U.N. reports refrained from making direct accusations.
Fransen’s special U.N. tribunal began its inquiry last month, and a conclusion is expected to take years.
Noting the politically charged environment in Lebanon, Fransen urged that the generals “be kept under strict security measures to ensure their safety.”
The release of the generals, which was anticipated in Lebanon, threatens to exacerbate tensions. As it approaches crucial elections in June, Lebanon is sharply divided between a Western-backed political alliance and a faction supported by Iran and Syria.
After the announcement Wednesday, gunshots and fireworks echoed across Beirut, the capital. Saad Hariri, a member of parliament and the son of the slain prime minister, said he was not disappointed and urged his followers to respect the tribunal’s decisions.
“The international tribunal that started now will pursue justice . . . and protect Lebanon,” he said in a televised speech, reiterating his “political accusation” of Syria.
Hariri, who heads the Western-backed March 14 coalition, had supported the generals’ imprisonment, saying they were responsible not just for the killing but also for the tight control exerted by security services on political life during the period of Syrian military domination of the country.
The faction backed by Iran and Syria, and led by the militant group Hezbollah, said the generals’ detention was politicized by anti-Syrian parties.
“This is the moment of truth,” Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of parliament, told reporters on Lebanese television. “This is the day of the fall of the [March 14] group, which based its judgment on falsification.”
Rafei is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.