Four Lebanese generals detained for nearly four years in connection with the 2005 assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri were released on Wednesday following a ruling to that effect by a special U.N. court.
The Hague-based tribunal issued its ruling, which it said should have immediate effect, after the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, had requested the generals' release.
They are the former head of the presidential guard, Mustafa Hamdan, 53, security services director Jamil al-Sayyed, 58, domestic security chief Ali Hajj, 52, and military intelligence chief Raymond Azar, 56.
Speaking from their respective homes after their release, the generals said they had been vindicated by the U.N.-backed court and insisted they had nothing to do with Hariri's 2005 murder in a massive car-bombing that also killed 22 others.
Lebanese authorities freed the men, who received a heroes' welcome replete with fireworks and dancing on their return home from Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut where they had been held since Aug. 30, 2005.
"I thank everyone who stood by us, and above all Hassan Nasrallah," Sayyed said, referring to the head of the Shiite Muslim group that is part of the opposition. "Never in the history of Lebanon have people been jailed for four years with no charge or evidence."
Never in the history of Lebanon have people been jailed for four years with no charge or evidence
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.
"We don't want vengeance, we just want those who committed this crime of arbitrary political detention to be held accountable," Sayyed said from his home.
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.
Their release left the Netherlands-based tribunal with no suspects in custody after a four-year U.N. investigation into an assassination that triggered enormous political and sectarian turmoil and forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
The release could be seen as a blow to the March 14 anti-Syrian political alliance just weeks before a parliamentary election on June 7 in which Hezbollah and Christian leader Michel Aoun, considered allies of Syria, hope to overturn their opponents' slim majority.
However, it is unlikely to affect the result significantly as politicians on both sides expect the poll to be a close contest.
Hariri’s son, Saad, welcomed the court's decision and said it showed the tribunal had no political agenda and that its work would continue.
"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.
"This court is here to stay and is not up for bargaining," he said. "Those who should be fearful today are the killers and no one else."
What has happened is a clear declaration that the international tribunal has started work and it will reveal the truth
In the ruling, the tribunal's first since opening its doors on March 1, pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen granted a request by prosecutor Daniel Bellemare who said the available evidence was "not sufficiently credible" to hold the generals.
The generals "cannot at this stage of the investigation be considered as either suspects or accused persons," said Fransen."As a result... they do not meet the conditions to be placed in provisional detention."
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.