BEIRUT: Testifying at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Thursday, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denied any direct involvement in the arrest and subsequent release of four Lebanese generals who were charged in 2005 in connection to Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
The generals were arrested amid a fierce campaign by March 14 officials who accused them of involvement in the blast, which killed Hariri and 21 others in February 2005.
Siniora, who was prime minister at the time the generals were detained, said that he was informed by the judiciary when the decision had been made, brushing off rumors that he had consulted with foreign officials before signing off on the arrests in late August 2005.
On the morning of Aug. 30, 2005, Siniora says he was visited by a United Nations investigator and by the Lebanese prosecutor in charge of the file. It was only that morning, Siniora told the court, that he learned that the generals would be arrested and their houses searched.
The generals remained in prison for four years without charges. A United Nations working group deemed the detention of two of the generals “arbitrary.” Almost immediately after The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was opened in 2009, judges ordered the release of Jamil al-Sayyed, Raymond Azar, Ali al-Hajj and Mustafa Hamdan as there was “no cause to hold them.”
Siniora told the court that he had made no effort to interfere with the release of the generals and that the Lebanese judiciary had acted free from political influence. The generals “remained behind bars until a decision was made to release them,” Siniora told the court. “If the Lebanese judiciary thought ... it was necessary to release the generals prior to when they were released, they would have done so.”
Defense attorney Antoine Korkmaz, who represents Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, cited a leaked American diplomatic cable detailing a meeting between Charles Rizk, the justice minister in Siniora’s government, and then-U.S. Ambassador Jeffery Feltman.
Rizk, according to the cable, spoke to Feltman about the legal maneuvering required to deflect blame from Siniora’s government should the generals be released. Their release, Rizk said, would have a “chilling effect” on the March 14 movement.
Siniora told the court that he “was not aware of that meeting.”
When pressed by Korkmaz on how he could have been ignorant of a meeting between a member of his own Cabinet and a high-ranking diplomat, Siniora scoffed.
“Do you think that we live in a totalitarian regime and no one can breathe without taking the approval of the prime minister?”
Siniora did not complete his testimony before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and will be called back to The Hague at a later date.
The Trial Chamber will resume on April 9.