(Reuters) - A special international tribunal on Wednesday ordered the release of four Lebanese generals held without charge for nearly four years over the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
At the time of the assassination, Major General Jamil al-Sayyed, Brigadier General Mustapha Hamdan, Major General Ali Hajj and Brigadier General Raymond Azar were seen as pillars of a Lebanese state that was dominated by neighboring Syria.
They were arrested in August 2005 at the request of German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who headed the early stages of a U.N. investigation into the killing and implicated prominent Syrian and Lebanese figures in the assassination.
Syria has always denied involvement in the killing, which triggered international pressure that forced Damascus to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon. The four generals have always insisted on their innocence.
An October 19, 2005 report by the Mehlis-led international investigation cited a witness saying that Sayyed cooperated closely with Hamdan and Azar in the preparation of the assassination and that Hajj knew about the attack in advance.
Later progress reports have not repeated the allegations.
The four generals have been held in Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut, since their detention. Their wives and lawyers have campaigned for their release, supported by pro-Syria Lebanese factions including Hezbollah.
Some international human rights organizations had described their detention as arbitrary.
Here are some facts on the four:
JAMIL AL-SAYYED (born 1950)
* Sayyed was head of General Security at the time of the assassination. He took up the post in 1998 and had formerly served in the army for 30 years.
* He was widely seen as the most influential security official in Lebanon in the period after the 1975-90 civil war.
* A Shi‘ite Muslim, he had close ties to the Iran- and Syria-backed Shi‘ite group Hezbollah, a political and military faction which fought Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon until a 2000 withdrawal.
* He resigned in April 2005 in the face of heavy pressure from the anti-Syria opposition after Hariri’s killing.
MUSTAPHA HAMDAN (born 1955)
* Hamdan, one of former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s closest aides, was head of the Republican Guard at the time of the killing. He had held the post since 1998, when Lahoud took office.
* Hamdan, a Sunni Muslim, was first put in charge of protecting Lahoud in 1990 when the latter was army commander. Hamdan was the only general to keep his post after the Hariri killing. He handed himself in to investigators on August 30, 2005.
* The October 19, 2005 Mehlis report said Hamdan told a witness: “We are going to send him on a trip -- bye, bye Hariri.” It also cited a witness saying that Hamdan had provided logistical support.
ALI HAJJ (born 1955)
* Hajj, a Sunni Muslim, was chief of police at the time of the assassination. He was appointed to the post in 2004 by then Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, a close ally of Syria.
* He was in charge of government protection for Hariri from 1992 until 1998.
* Hariri cut links to him in 2000, suspecting he was leaking information to Syrian officials on his political activities.
RAYMOND AZAR (born 1953)
* Azar, a Maronite Christian, was head of military intelligence at the time of the assassination. He was also appointed to the post in 1998 when Lahoud was elected president.
* Azar, from the mostly Christian village of Jezzine, originally studied to be a priest before joining the army.
* The Mehlis report quoted a witness as saying that Azar, like Hamdan, provided logistical support for the assassination.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Tom Perry