30 April 2009

* The 4 Suspects in PM Hariri’s Death Released

A judge ordered the release of four high-ranking Lebanese security officials on Wednesday, all being held here in connection with the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The decision was seen here as a blow for the political movement led by Mr. Hariri’s son.

The judge, Daniel Fransen, said there was not enough evidence to keep holding the four men, who have been detained without charge since September 2005 and are widely believed to have had some knowledge of or involvement in the killing. They were the only suspects in custody of the Hague-based international tribunalUnited Nations auspices after Mr. Hariri’s death in a major car bombing on Feb. 14, 2005.

The announcement was met with wild volleys of celebratory gunfire from the generals’ supporters in Beirut and in the southern suburb that is the stronghold of Hezbollah, Mr. Hariri’s political adversary.

“Some Lebanese are not relieved by this decision,” said Saad Hariri, the former prime minister’s son, grim-faced during a news conference here after the decision. But he added that he welcomed any decision from the tribunal in The Hague. He also said releasing the generals would disprove recurring accusations that the tribunal was politicized in favor of Mr. Hariri’s allies.

The four — Jamil Sayyed, Ali Hajj, Raymond Azar, and Mustafa Hamdan — directed the chief security and intelligence services and the presidential guard. They were widely seen as henchmen for Syria, which occupied Lebanon militarily for three decades. Widely believed to have ordered Rafik Hariri’s killing, Syria was forced out of Lebanon under local and international pressure a few months later.

The decision in The Hague comes just seven weeks before a crucial parliamentary election here in which Saad Hariri and his political allies, now in the majority, are facing an alliance led by Hezbollah. Many here believe the tribunal’s decision could cut into Mr. Hariri’s votes by spreading the impression that Syria would escape being brought to account for the assassination of his father and be emboldened to rebuild its influence here.

Lebanese officials had lobbied to have the decision delayed until after the elections, but tribunal judicial figures refused, saying they could not take political considerations into account, said a senior court official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the court’s inner workings.

The first prosecutor in the case, Detlev Mehlis, released a report in 2005 that the assassination was planned by high-level Syrian and Lebanese officials, including some in the inner circle of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. At the time, the tribunal was widely seen as a vehicle for the widespread anger here and in the West over Syria’s role in Lebanon. A string of other political assassinations took place in the following years, and they could still be included as part of the tribunal’s work if they are proved to be related to Rafik Hariri’s killing, in which 22 others also died.

The tribunal has always been controversial in Lebanon. Many supporters have seen it as a way to punish Syria and its proxies here, which they tend to blame for all the assassinations since 2005. By contrast, those in the political opposition — including Hezbollah — see it more as a political weapon aimed at their Syrian ally. They also ask why such a tribunal is warranted for a billionaire politician and not for the victims of the many massacres and assassinations that have taken place here in recent decades.

Disagreements over the tribunal led to a walkout by opposition cabinet ministers in late 2006, setting off a political showdown that crippled Lebanon’s government for 18 months and led it to the brink of another civil war.

Recently, the tribunal appears to have moved more slowly, and the prosecutors who followed Mr. Mehlis have not named any suspects. A key witness retracted a statement that implicated the four generals, undermining the case against them. Their release became almost inevitable after two senior investigators with the tribunal reported that there was not enough evidence to hold the men. The tribunal gained jurisdiction over them when it formally opened on March 1.

The tribunal’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, emphasized that the case was bigger than the four generals, who could be called as witnesses or even rearrested if more evidence is found. Tribunal officials have said that indictments could be issued later this year.

But many Lebanese seemed to view the generals’ release as a sign that the tribunal might never bring Mr. Hariri’s killers to justice.

“It is a shock,” said Samir Frangieh, one of Mr. Hariri’s parliamentary allies. “Everyone knows who these men were and what they did.” In contrast was the current of joy among the generals’ allies, including former president Émile Lahoud, who sent an entourage to the prison to greet Mr. Hamdan, his former bodyguard. At the home of Mr. Sayyed, supporters shouted and hugged each other as news of his impending release was announced.

“We want the truth behind Hariri’s killing,” said Faisal Hamdan, Mr. Sayyed’s brother-in-law, echoing a phrase used by Mr. Hariri’s own supporters to promote their demands for justice. “We want the truth as it really is.”


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.