THE HAGUE (AFP) – A UN special court is to decide Wednesday whether to release or keep in custody four Lebanese generals held for nearly four years without charge over the assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
The decision by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in The Hague will be broadcast live on television in Lebanon, where it is eagerly awaited in political circles, as well as through an Internet webcast.
Neither journalists nor the public will be allowed to attend the tribunal’s first-ever sitting when pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen reads his decision at 1200 GMT.
The generals have been detained in Lebanon since 2005 but are legally in the custody of the tribunal since Beirut relinquished its jurisdiction in the Hariri case this month following the official opening of the STL in March.
They are the former head of the presidential guard, Mustafa Hamdan, security services director Jamil Sayyed, domestic security chief Ali Hajj and military intelligence chief Raymond Azar.
The four men were detained following the massive February 2005 bomb blast on the Beirut seafront that killed Hariri and 22 other people, stirring a political crisis and leading to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year presence in Lebanon.
STL prosecutor Daniel Bellemare handed his recommendations on the generals’ fate to Fransen on Monday. His submission has not been made public.
Wednesday’s ruling comes ahead of a crucial legislative election in June which will see the Western-backed parliamentary majority headed by Hariri’s son Saad fight it out with a Hezbollah-led alliance backed by Syria and Iran.
“If the generals are kept in detention or released there will probably be someone in Lebanon who will make the best use of this in the electoral competition,” Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri said.
A UN investigative commission has found evidence that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were linked to Hariri’s killing. Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.
Fransen’s decision will have no bearing on the general’s guilt or innocence, and they can still be indicted at a later stage.
Under Lebanese law, which also guides the activities of the STL, suspects detained for crimes perceived to threaten national security can be held indefinitely without charge.
Jamil Sayyed’s attorney Akram Azouri told AFP that if Bellemare had recommended the release of one or more of the generals and the judge concurs, they would be freed immediately.
The prosecutor would have 24 hours to appeal to the ruling, and the generals a week.
If the judge decides to keep them in jail, tribunal rules allow for suspects and their lawyers to address the court via video conference.
Mitri said that the Lebanese government would abide by any decision handed down.
“If you support the tribunal, you support its independence and you respect its decisions no matter what they are,” he said.
No date has yet been set for the tribunal’s first trial.
Lebanon supplied a list of those detained for Hariri’s murder to the tribunal earlier this month, and Bellemare has stated he would only file indictments once convinced that he had enough evidence.