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World News

Lebanon tribunal orders release of generals

AMSTERDAM/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday ordered the release of four pro-Syrian security generals held in Lebanon since 2005 over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Supporters of newly released prisoner Ali Hajj (C), former police chief, carry him during a welcome ceremony to mark his release, in Beirut, April 29, 2009. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

The Hague-based tribunal issued its ruling, which it said should have immediate effect, after the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, had requested the generals’ release.

Lebanese authorities later freed the men, who received a heroes’ welcome on their return home from Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut. They had been held since August 30, 2005.

Major-General Jamil al-Sayyed, addressing a crowd outside his home after his release, criticised the Lebanese judiciary for holding them 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.

In Beirut, celebratory gunfire erupted when the international judge announced the decision. Supporters of the generals fired rifles into the air in their home towns and gave away sweets and slaughtered sheep.

The four men, who commanded Lebanon’s pro-Syrian security establishment at the time of Hariri’s death in 2005, had been held without charge for nearly four years.

The release will be seen as a blow to an anti-Syrian political alliance just weeks before a parliamentary election on June 7 in which Hezbollah and other allies of Syria’s hope to overturn their opponents’ slim majority.

However, it is unlikely to affect the result significantly. Politicians on both sides expect the poll to be a close contest.

Detente in the past few months between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which supports the anti-Damascus bloc, is likely to help produce a broadly inclusive government after the election.

STATEMENT RETRACTED

Prosecutor Bellemare said in his submission to the court an assessment of the evidence showed it was not credible enough to warrant indictments.

In handing down the ruling, the presiding judge, Daniel Fransen, noted the prosecutor had therefore indicated he was unable to indict the four generals within the legal time frame.

“Some witnesses modified their statements and ... a key witness expressly retracted his original statement which incriminated the persons detained,” Fransen said.

It was not immediately clear whether the prosecutor intended to try and indict the generals at a later stage.

Hariri and 22 other people were killed by a suicide truck bomb in Beirut on February 14, 2005. Some Lebanese politicians, including the murdered politician’s son Saad al-Hariri, have blamed the attack on Syria.

Damascus denied responsibility but the killing caused a worldwide outcry that forced an end to Syria’s 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Saad al-Hariri welcomed the court’s decision and said it showed the tribunal had no political agenda.

“I ... don’t feel one iota of disappointment or fear over the fate of the international tribunal. What has happened is a clear declaration that the international tribunal has started work and it will reveal the truth,” Hariri said on television.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie

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