Four pro-Syrian generals went free this week after the Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge them in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
The four -- Jamil al-Sayyed, Ali al-Hajj, Mustafa Hamdan and Raymond Azar -- were arrested in August 2005 and were the only suspects held in the murder. Problems arose in the investigation when witnesses began changing their statements, and one key witness retracted his incrimination of the officers.
Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare asked for the generals to be released after deciding that he would be unable to indict them within the time frame set by the tribunal. However, he may still charge the four at a later date.
Supporters turned out en masse to celebrate the release, firing in the air and distributing candy to passersby.
Sayyed spoke to supporters outside his home following his release and called on senior Lebanese justice officials to resign for having agreed to hold him and his fellow suspects without charge. “We don't want vengeance, we just want those who committed this crime of arbitrary political detention to be held accountable,” he said.
Sayyed later spoke to the Associated Press and predicted a wave of pro-Syrian support. “It was only natural that when the tribunal took a decision that goes against the politically motivated detention, there would be an opposite political impact,” he said.
Lebanon is several weeks away from crucial national elections. The election is expected to be a close race between the Hizbullah-led pro-Syrian bloc and the more pro-Western bloc headed by Hariri's son, Sa'ad.
Sa'ad Hariri said that he welcomed the court's decision, which he said proved the tribunal does not have a political agenda. “What has happened is a clear declaration that the international tribunal has started work and it will reveal the truth,” he said in a public address.
Sa'ad's father, Rafik al-Hariri and 22 others were killed in a truck bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005. Hariri had pushed for an end to Syria's military and political presence in Lebanon.
Syria was widely blamed for the assassination, and was forced to retreat from Lebanon due to popular backlash after the killing. The four generals detained in connection with the assassination were senior commanders working with the Syrians, and were responsible for military intelligence and the presidential guard.