Lebanon frees three suspects in Hariri murder case

Judge doesn't explain decision to release suspects on bail; move comes just days before an int'l court is due to take over proceedings.

hariri poster 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
hariri poster 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
A Lebanese judge on Wednesday set free three suspects held for more than three years in connection with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - just days before an international court was to take over the critical case. Investigating judge Saqr Saqr didn't explain his decision to release the three on a bail of 500,000 Lebanese pounds ($330) each. They could still be prosecuted in the case, although no charges have been raised in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on a seaside street in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005. Their lengthy custody and release just days before Netherlands assumes the case on Sunday casts a shadow on the Lebanese investigation into the killing. A statement from Saqr said he decided to keep in custody four other suspects in the bombing - all top Lebanese pro-Syrian security generals who at the time of the assassination held the posts of a police chief, military intelligence chief, chief of a General Security agency, and head of the Presidential Guard Brigade. The four generals could be handed over to that court as part of the transfer of jurisdiction. Brothers Mahmoud and Ahmed Abdel-Al, a member of a pro-Syrian Sunni Muslim fundamentalist group, were detained in 2005. A UN probe into the slaying said Mahmoud made a call to former President Emile Lahoud's mobile phone shortly before the bombing. But the office of Lahoud, a Hariri rival, denied the president received the call. The third released suspect, Syrian Ibrahim Jarjoura, was arrested in 2006 on suspicion he gave false evidence and misled the investigation. As the news of the release of the Abdel-Al brothers filtered down, several hundred supporters gathered outside offices of Ahmed's faction in a Muslim neighborhood of Beirut to await their arrival. Some beat drums, others handed out candy, set off firecrackers or fired off pistols into the air in celebration. The late Hariri had close ties with Western leaders and was credited with helping rebuild Beirut after the 1975-1990 civil war and trying to limit neighboring Syria's influence over Lebanon. The assassination of the billionaire businessman and politician led to dramatic changes in Lebanon. The Syrian army was forced to withdraw from the country after mass protests following the slaying, which also sparked political upheaval and violence after a long period of stability. The UN Security Council ordered an investigation into the assassination after its fact-finding mission found that the Lebanese investigation had serious flaws and that an independent probe was necessary. The first UN investigator, German Detlev Mehlis, said the plot's complexity suggested Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. Hariri's supporters accuse Damascus of the bombing but Syria denies any involvement. Mehlis, who has been followed by two investigators since 2006, repeated in an interview published Wednesday in the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper that he has a "clear picture" of who carried out the assassination but that the evidence needs to be presented in court. The Security Council later set up the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal in the Netherlands to try the case, after Lebanon's parliament was sharply divided over the issue between the majority and the opposition and failed to ratify an agreement with the UN.