Beirut- Three men jailed for more than three years in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri were set free on bail on Wednesday, days before an international tribunal was to begin trying the case.
The judge did not explain his decision to release two Lebanese brothers on a bail of 500,000 Lebanese pounds ($330) each and a Syrian man on a bail of just 100,000 Lebanese pounds ($67). The three could still be prosecuted in the case, although no one has been charged in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on a seaside street in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
Investigating judge Saqr Saqr's decision, carried by the official news agency, said four other suspects in the bombing — all pro-Syrian Lebanese generals — would remain jailed, which could allow them to be turned over to the international court. At the time of the assassination, the generals headed the police, military intelligence, a General Security agency, and the Presidential Guard Brigade.
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.
Following his assassination, Syria's army withdrew after mass protests, which also sparked political upheaval and violence.
The U.N. Security Council ordered an independent investigation into the assassination after its fact-finding mission found that the Lebanese investigation was flawed.
The Security Council set up the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal in the Netherlands at the Lebanese government's request after parliament split between the majority and the opposition and failed to ratify an agreement with the U.N. The case has been handed over to the tribunal.
The first U.N. 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 involvement.
Two of the men freed Wednesday — brothers Mahmoud and Ahmed Abdel-Aal, are member of al-Ahbash a pro-Syrian Sunni Muslim fundamentalist group — were detained in 2005. A U.N. probe into the slaying said Mahmoud made "interesting" phone calls Feb. 14, including one to former President Emile Lahoud, just before a truck bomb killed Hariri, raising questions about the president.
But the office of Lahoud, a Hariri rival and Syria's staunchest ally, denied the president received the call.
Lahoud's extension of his term in September 2004 for three more years, under pressure from Syria, triggered a sharp disagreement between Damascus, then a dominant power in Lebanon, and Hariri, who opposed the measure then relented before resigning two months later.
Ahmed Abdel-Aal was named by the U.N. probe in 2005 as a "key figure" who had extensive contacts with top Lebanese security officials before and after the blast, and tried to hide information from investigators.
The third man freed, 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-Aal 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.
Top Photo: Women relatives of Lebanese brothers Mahmoud and Ahmed Abdel-Aal, react, outside the headquarters of the pro-Syrian Al-Ahbash group, as they wait for the two to arrive in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009.
Adnan Traboulsi, an official of the pro-Syrian Muslim Sunni fundamentalist group al-Ahbash flashes a victory sign upon the arrival of newly released prisoners Mahmoud Abdel Aal and Ahmed Abdel Aal, at the group's headquarters in Beirut February 25, 2009.
Relatives and supporters throw confetti and surround a vehicle carrying newly released prisoners, Mahmoud Abdel Aal and Ahmed Abdel Aal, upon their arrival at the headquarters of the pro-Syrian Muslim Sunni fundamentalist group al-Ahbash in Beirut February 25, 2009.
Tags: Hariri, Lebanon, source: AP, Syria, Tribunal, Ya Libnan