'Release will tip balance in Lebanon'

Freed Lebanese general held in connection with Hariri assassination calls for judges' resignation.

jamil al-sayyed 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
jamil al-sayyed 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A general freed after nearly four years in jail in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri said Thursday his release by a UN-backed tribunal discredited Lebanon's judiciary and could shift the country's fragile political balance. Brig. Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, one of the former Lebanese security officials the tribunal ordered released on Wednesday citing insufficient evidence, called for the resignation of senior Lebanese judges. "Inevitably, there will be political consequences," Sayyed told The Associated Press in an interview. "It was only natural that when the tribunal took a decision that goes against the politically motivated detention, there would be an opposite political impact." The tribunal's decision was a setback for Lebanon's pro-Western political bloc headed by Hariri's son Saad. Senior judiciary officials who were in charge of the generals' case are considered by many to be close to Saad Hariri and his alliance. The bloc, which holds a majority in parliament, was struggling to contain the political damage heading into crucial elections in June against a Hizbullah-led faction. Hariri was killed along with 22 others in a massive 2005 truck bombing on a Beirut street. The billionaire businessman and longtime ally of Syria was quietly challenging Damascus' three decades of domination over Lebanon at the time of his assassination and his killing sparked a domestic and international outcry that forced Syria and its tens of thousands of troops out of the country. Hariri's supporters blamed Syria for the killing, a charge Damascus denies. The four released by the special international tribunal set up to find out who was behind Hariri's killing were the only suspects in custody. Sayyed was considered Syria's strongman in Lebanon. He and the other three freed generals - Ali al-Hajj, Raymond Azar and Mustafa Hamdan - directed the chief security and military intelligence services and the presidential guard. They were instrumental in implementing Syrian policy in Lebanon in the years before the Syrian army was forced to withdraw. Their arrest nearly four years ago was a condemnation of Syria and its allies in Lebanon, so their release is likely to boost the pro-Syrian factions led by Hizbullah. Sayyed was receiving well-wishers at a hotel as Lebanon was coming to grips with the new political reality after the release of the generals. "What happened yesterday amounts to the downfall of the Lebanese judiciary at the hands of the international justice," he said. He said he would consider himself compensated "if the judges who erred, the officers and the journalists who fed the false witnesses with information, resign as a result of the court's decision." He said he would wait for their resignation or dismissal, but if that does not happen, he and the others may eventually bring a lawsuit against those responsible for his detention. "I do not seek revenge. ... But at the same time, I like accountability," he said. The tribunal was imposed on Lebanon by the UN Security Council after deep divisions prevented parliament from ratifying its formation. The majority supported it as a way to limit Syria's influence and end a series of political assassinations that followed Hariri's. But the minority, particularly Hizbullah, saw it as a Western tool to pressure it and ally Damascus. The generals were arrested after the first UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis, said the complexity of the assassination plot suggested a role by Syrian intelligence services and its pro-Syria Lebanese counterpart. An early draft of a report he issued in 2005 linked Syrian President Bashar Assad's inner circle but the two investigators who succeeded him did not repeat the accusations and said Syria was cooperating. Hizbullah wasted no time in capitalizing on the release. Its officials flanked the freed generals Wednesday as supporters set off fireworks and danced. "The priority is to hold accountable those responsible for the years of deception and stalling," a Hizbullah statement said. Saad Hariri's political ally Walid Jumblatt, an outspoken critic of Syria, sought to rally supporters ahead of the elections. "We will win the elections for the sake of justice and for the sake of Rafik Hariri," he told reporters Thursday. He said he accepts the court's decision but "we will not drop the political accusations" against Syria.