Connect to share and comment

Search for justice in Hariri case

Why an international tribunal released the only four people being held over the 2005 killing and what it means for Lebanese politics.

A man holds his child as they visit the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut March 1, 2009. The placard reads, "The Special Tribunal for Lebanon." (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

BEIRUT — The decision on April 29 to release four generals suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri sent shockwaves through Lebanon and around the region.

The generals had been held in a Lebanese prison for nearly four years. They were arrested under the direction of the United Nations International Independent Investigation, established in 2005 and busy ever since collecting evidence in the car bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.

The U.N. investigation completed its work in this past March and the evidence was turned over to the Lebanese and U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. The court released the generals April 29 due to what pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen said was was "not sufficiently credible" evidence to continue holding them.

There are no other suspects in custody.

The generals led Lebanon’s most powerful security and intelligence apparatuses during Syria’s 30-year de facto occupation of Lebanon. By occupying the highest of security positions, many Lebanese wondered how the generals, or their Syrian overseers, couldn’t have known about 6,000 pounds of explosives moving around the country that eventually would blow up next to Hariri’s convoy.

Like the generals, the Syrians deny any involvement in the assassination. An indictment of the generals “would have established with virtual certainty Syria’s involvement in the crime,”  Lebanon politics observer Elias Muhanna wrote on his blog. But with the generals’ release, Muhanna came to a very different conclusion: “What this means for the future of the Hariri tribunal is unclear, but one can probably safely conclude that Syria is off the hook, barring any major surprises in [the] investigation.”

Rafiq Hariri’s son, Saad, the parliamentary majority leader, used the occasion to voice his continued support for the tribunal and to dispel criticisms that the court was politicized and was being used by the U.S. to put pressure on Syria. Praise for the tribunal quickly came from opposition leaders who had previously criticized the generals’ detention.

But Hezbollah, which had long maintained the generals’ innocence and dismissed the court as biased, took the opportunity to revel in the confirmation of its stance. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made it clear the group would continue to look at the tribunal skeptically, lest it come after Hezbollah allies in Syria or Lebanon again.

“The prosecutor, the international investigation and the international tribunal judges must henceforth prove, through their performance, that they are scientific minded, professional, fair and free of politicization, and that they are persons of integrity,” he said on May 1.

Theories abound on the reasons for the generals' release and the likely impact.