BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon ordered on Wednesday the release of four Lebanese generals held without charge since 2005 on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, although officials say the men can still be indicted at a later date.
"The pre-trial judge orders, unless they are held in another case, the release with immediate effect of the four generals," judge Daniel Fransen announced in a decision broadcast live via the Tribunal's website and on Lebanese television.
The highly anticipated verdict came after prosecutor Daniel Bellemare submitted a report on Monday saying there was insufficient evidence to detain the men any longer.
"Based on that and the fact that these persons are presumed innocent, the prosecutor does not believe there is a need to keep them in detention at this point in the proceedings," Fransen said.
Article 62 of the Lebanese penal code stipulated that suspects could not be arrested unless charges were confirmed by a judge, he added. Fransen also cited the fact that some witnesses had modified their statements and "a key witness expressly retracted his original statement which incriminated the persons detained" as further reasoning for the men's release. The Belgian judge requested the Lebanese authorities ensure the generals were adequately protected after their release.
The men are former LAF Intelligence chief Raymond Azar, Mustapha Hamdan of the Presidential Guard, Internal Security Forces director Ali Hajj and General Security director Jamil al-Sayyed.
Fireworks and celebratory gunfire was heard across Beirut and the general's hometowns after the news of their release. The Lebanese government said it would fully comply with Fransen's order, and the generals were seen leaving Roumieh prison Wednesday evening flanked by throngs of supporters who threw flower petals, danced and waved banners.
The former generals, who headed Lebanon's pro-Syrian security institutions at the time of Hariri's killing, had been incarcerated since August 2005 upon the recommendation of former UN investigator Detlev Mehlis. The men were never officially charged, but were taken into custody on suspicion of murder, attempted murder and terrorism - accusations their lawyers say are based on the testimony of a witness later discredited by investigators.
Under Lebanese law, which is being partly upheld by the tribunal, suspects detained for crimes seen to threaten national security can be held indefinitely without charge.
Mustafa Hamdan and Raymond Azar's lawyer Naji Bustany lauded the decision but said the men should have been released years ago. "After 44 months, justice has been done. It should have been 43 months ago," he told AFP.
The generals have always maintained their innocence in the killing of five-time Premier Hariri, who was killed with 22 others in a massive car bombing in Beirut's Ain al-Mreisse on February 14, 2005. His murder, the first in a string of similar political assassinations, was widely blamed on Syria, and pushed Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 30 years of dominating the country's political affairs.
Upon his release, Sayyed said a "conspiracy" was behind his and the other generals imprisonment. "Once a judge told me that he couldn't do anything because Saad Hariri would cut off his head," he told a crowd of well-wishers. Hariri "should now hold accountable all politicians or those who misled him in the media."
In August 2008, Sayyed initiated court proceedings against Mehlis for distorting the probe and calling false witnesses.
"This is the result I was waiting for a long time ago," Hajj's lawyer Issam Karam told reporters. "I followed the case from the onset and there is nothing in the file that implicates the generals."
Hajj meanwhile said he hoped his release would be "a message to unite the Lebanese."
Mustapha Hamdan told reporters he wanted to forget about his four-year ordeal, citing Israel as Lebanon's only enemy.
The decision to release the former generals did not necessarily mean they were innocent and they could still be indicted at a later stage if evidence implicated them, prosecutor Bellemare wrote in his submission to Fransen. "Not only should people understand that the investigation is bigger than the case of the four officers, they should also understand that should any of the investigative leads direct us back to them with sufficient credible evidence I will seek their detention and indictment."
He added that tribunal officials were pursuing several leads in their ongoing investigation and that "if I thought the case could not be solved I would be the first to say so."
Tribunal officials arrived in Beirut on Tuesday to follow-up the order to release the generals, OTV reported. There are now no suspects in custody over Hariri's killing, following the release of three civilians on bail in February.
One other suspect remains on the run, though media reports last week claimed he had been arrested by police in the United Arab Emirates after disappearing in France over one year ago.
Mohammad Zuhair Siddiq, supposedly a former Syrian intelligence agent, was arrested in a Paris suburb in October 2005 under an international arrest warrant requested by a Lebanese prosecutor. He was placed under house arrest after the French authorities refused a request to extradite him to Lebanon, saying it had failed to receive guarantees that Siddiq would not face the death penalty if convicted. Siddiq disappeared in March 2008, prompting accusations by his brother that France had "liquidated" him.
In 2006, Siddiq alleged Syrian President Bashar Assad and his then-Lebanese counterpart Emile Lahoud had ordered Hariri's murder. The UN tribunal charged with prosecuting Hariri's killers initially considered Siddiq a key witness in their investigation, but made him a suspect after his testimonies were discredited. - Additionnal reporting by Therese Sfeir