BEIRUT: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said on Thursday that Damascus would not impede the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) tasked with prosecuting suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. "Syria has nothing to do with it and will not interfere," Moallem said of the UN-backed court during a press conference in Damascus, calling the matter a "Lebanese issue."
His remarks came just over a week after the release of four Lebanese generals detained for four years without charge on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's killing. Former Lebanese Armed Forces intelligence chief Raymond Azar, Mustafa Hamdan of the Presidential Guard, Internal Security Forces director Ali Hajj and General Security director Jamil al-Sayyed, were released on April 29 after STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said he could not justify their continued detention.
The men, who led Lebanon's pro-Syrian security institutions at the time of Hariri's death, had been incarcerated since August 2005 upon the recommendation of former UN investigator Detlev Mehlis. Never formally charged, they 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. The witness, Syrian national Mohammad Zuhair Siddiq, was later made a suspect himself.
The generals have always maintained their innocence in Hariri's killing in a massive car bomb on February 14, 2005, in which 22 others also perished. 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 nearly 30 years of dominating the country's political affairs.
Sayyed has taken his complaints to the courts, initiating legal proceedings against Mehlis for "distorting the investigation and calling false witnesses" in August 2008. His lawyers received a request from French authorities asking the former general to appear before a French court before June 4, As-Safir newspaper reported Wednesday.
The request was made as Lebanon's March 14 coalition, led by Hariri's Future Movement, warned of attempts by their political rivals to "kill" the court. "The decision by the March 8 forces to support the generals and its previous rejections of any of the court's decisions are attempts to kill this tribunal," the coalition's General Secretariat said Wednesday.
Meanwhile on Thursday, STL spokesperson Suzan Khan confirmed reports that court president Antonio Cassesse has postponed a visit to Beirut. "He still intends to visit Lebanon and the region," Khan told The Daily Star, but declined to explain why the trip had been cancelled. Cassesse will likely reschedule the trip for July, she said, adding that "no definitive date" had been set.