A shot in the arm for Hezbollah
DAMASCUS - In a dramatic development, four generals jailed since 2005 for alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri were on Wednesday released from the nation's Roumieh Prison.
The release has emboldened Hezbollah, which has consistently supported the generals, and perhaps angered Rafik's son Saad al-Hariri and his supporters, who lobbied strongly for the generals' arrest in 2005. The release, which comes 40 days ahead of parliamentary elections, is a strong campaign boost for Hezbollah. It has consistently claimed innocence in al-Hariri's murder, and that the officials were arrested for political reasons - their links to then-president Emille Lahhoud, Syria and Hezbollah - rather than having anything to do with the assassination plot.
Hezbollah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah has mentioned the officers in seven high-profile speeches since 2005, each time calling for their release. After the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which opened its investigation in al-Hariri's death in March, called for their immediate release and protection, Hezbollah rejoiced while members of the pro-Western March 14 Coalition sulked.
The headline on the front page of As-Saffir, a political daily newspaper close to the Hezbollah-led opposition, was "The four officers are liberated, the political scene changes." The political party Amal, from which Hezbollah was born in 1982, issued a statement saying that "justice had prevailed".
While Arab satellite TV carried breaking news of the court's decision, the March 14 coalition's Future TV preferred to air a program about swine flu. Clearly, Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, was unimpressed.
The four generals are Jamil Sayyed, 58, the ex-chief of general security, Raymond Azzar, 56, the ex-chief of intelligence, Ali al-Hajj, 52, a former head of internal security and Mustapha Hamdan, 53, the ex-commander of the presidential guard.
At the time of their arrest in August 2005, all were described as being pro-Syrian. The International Tribunal said it did not have sufficient evidence to keep them in custody, although they had been held by the Lebanese judicial system for nearly four years with no official charges. Lebanese law stipulates that no suspects can be held in custody for more than 90 days if no charges have been brought against them. And Article 62 of the Lebanese penal code states that suspects can not be arrested unless charges have been confirmed by a judge.
All the generals were in their posts when Rafik al-Hariri was killed along with 22 others, including cabinet minister Bassel Fleihan, by a massive car-bomb on February 14, 2005. Former United Nations prosecutor Detlev Mehlis hinted in his first report in October 2005 that they might have known of - or plotted - the assassination.
Quickly retracting his initial response to the release, Saad al-Hariri, head of the largest bloc in parliament, later held a press conference saying: "I don't feel any disappointment or fear about the fate of the Special Tribunal, which will definitely reach justice and protect Lebanon." He added that he would "never doubt a decision issued by the tribunal".
Samir Gagega, another March 14 heavyweight who had previously gloated over the arrest of the four generals, also quickly changed course, saying. "I will congratulate some of these generals." Fireworks and celebratory gunfire was heard in different parts of Beirut celebrating their release.
Hezbollah parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah was among the first to visit Sayyed at his home, congratulating the officer by saying, "This should be a day of joy and celebration for all Lebanese." Sayyed spoke of his arrest, saying that one judge told him he "could not do anything [about the case] because Saad al-Hariri would cut off his head". He then toned down his rhetoric, hinting that Saad al-Hariri had been misled by his entourage, and that the young member of parliament should "now hold accountable all politicians or those who mislead him in the media".
The Special Tribunal for Rafik al-Hariri has occupied the Lebanese political community for too long, since February 2005. Then - and all the way up until late 2008 - anti-Syrian statesmen had said that when the court became operational, it would incriminate Syria and its allies for killing Rafik, a five-time prime minister who was a loyal ally of Damascus from 1992-2005.
But all prosecutors since Mehlis have failed to find a single clue incriminating the Syrians in the al-Hariri case, and more recently, if the court had any evidence against the four generals - or against Hezbollah or Syria - it would not have released any of them.
The Saad al-Hariri team was disappointed when George W Bush left office in January 2008 without any solid moves against Syrian or Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon. Syria has repeatedly said that because of its innocence, it will have nothing to do with the al-Hariri Tribunal and considers it purely an internal Lebanese issue.
Syria has continued to support Hezbollah, which emerged - to the horror of March 14 - stronger and more defiant after the Israeli war of 2006. The March 14 Coalition had put their faith in Bush, whose relationship with Syria soured after the Syrians refused to join the 2003 war against Iraq, believing he was bent on regime change in Damascus.
The more relations soured between Syria and the US, the more anti-Syrian statesmen geared up in Lebanon, using the strain to call for a disarmament of Hezbollah. Nasrallah stood by his position, threatening to "cut off the hand" of anybody who tried to disarm Hezbollah, and stressing on every occasion that Syria was innocent in the al-Hariri case.
Some in Lebanon, like Druze (a religion similar to Islam) leader Walid Jumblatt, went as far as to say that because the four generals were close to Syria and Nasrallah, Hezbollah itself may have had an interest in eliminating Rafik. He has been particularly silent since the officers were released.
Many, including Hezbollah, had opposed internationalizing the Hariri case, claiming that it should remain within the Lebanese system. The Saad al-Hariri team pushed for an international tribunal, claiming that this way it would not be politicized. The call was an indirect hint that they - quite rightly - had little faith in their own legal system. This same system kept four senior generals behind bars for four years, with no charges.
The real reason as to why this happened is still unknown, but the families of those recently released claim the detention continued under pressure from March 14, which is a very likely option. That appears to have been confirmed by Sayyed's statement on April 29.
One must take into account, however, that when the four generals were arrested, someone whispered into Saad al-Hariri's ear, that these men had killed his father. Young - only 35 at the time of his father's death - and with no political experience, the Saudi-born al-Hariri might have believed what was being said to him - after all these people had worked with his father for nearly 20 years. Saad eventually became part, then head, of the anti-Syrian movement in Beirut.
Many seasoned politicians milked the young billionaire, investing in his political inexperience. What might have made the story all the more believable to Saad al-Hariri was the Mehlis' report, which read like an Agatha Christie murder novel. It had plenty of allegations, but they were all challenged and eventually revoked by the Belgian and Canadian prosecutors who succeeded him.
What matters now is the parliamentary elections. Ordinary citizens, asked to vote in June, will once again question the integrity of a state, headed by March 14 since 2005, that kept four generals in jail without a shred of evidence.
All parties are calling for a "state of law in Lebanon". If anything, March 14 - and Saad al-Hariri - proved on Wednesday that they are anything but advocates of justice. What kind of government stands up for the arrest of four senior generals with no evidence, for the sake of advancing political interests? The four generals, their supporters - and the towns that they represent - will certainly not be voting for March 14, claiming that for four years they have purposely obstructed justice in Lebanon.
Rather, they will be voting for the Hezbollah-led opposition, which for years has been saying what the international court said last week; that the four generals were indeed not guilty.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.