BEIRUT (AFP) — The Lebanese government on Tuesday defended as “perfectly legal” its long-running detention of four high-ranking army officers in connection with the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri.
The government statement came in response to criticism by the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has called for the men’s release, saying their detention without charge since August 2005 was “arbitrary” and “unjust.”
“The arrests are in accordance with Lebanese and international law,” the statement said, adding that the men could not be released for fear they would flee and that critical evidence would be lost.
“Influential parties could also provide them with refuge in Lebanon or in a country that has an interest in burying any evidence related to the crime,” the statement added.
It was referring to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah as well as to Syria, which has been implicated in the crime but has denied involvement.
The Beirut government said that the four detainees, all of whom are accused of being close to Damascus, are being treated well in prison.
The men — former presidential guard chief General Mustafa Hamdan, the former head of the general security department General Jamil Sayyed, the former head of the internal security forces General Ali Hajj and the former chief of army intelligence General Raymond Azar — have all pleaded their innocence.
According to a recent UN report on Hariri’s Feburary 2005 assassination, a “criminal network” of individuals carried out the killing.
The attack was one of the worst acts of political violence to rock the battered country since the 1975-1990 civil war, and led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.
A political crisis that has gripped the country since is widely seen as an extension of the regional confrontation pitting the United States and its ally Saudi Arabia against Iran and Syria.