By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, May 1 (Reuters) - The U.N.-backed tribunal set up to try the assassins of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri showed its impartiality by freeing the only suspects in custody, but stirred doubts over the investigation and prospects for a trial.
"Ordinary people will ask themselves about the state of the evidence that the commission gathered," said Marieke Wierda, a Beirut-based expert on the tribunal at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a human rights group.
But she said the Hague-based tribunal, which began work only in March, had preserved its credibility by using evidence as the basis for Wednesday’s decision to release the four Lebanese former security chiefs for lack of evidence to indict them.
Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who first headed the U.N. inquiry into Hariri’s 2005 killing and originally recommended the generals’ detention, was scathing about their release.
"This could send the tribunal into oblivion," he told Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.
In Lebanon, the release of the four men held without charge since 2005 was widely seen as a blow to the anti-Syrian alliance led by the slain former prime minister’s son, Saad al-Hariri — less than six weeks before a June 7 parliamentary election.
Hariri had blamed Damascus for the suicide truck bombing that killed his father and 22 others, and for other attacks on anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. Syria denies any involvement.
HAILED AS HEROES
Hariri’s opponents greeted the tribunal’s announcement with celebratory gunfire across Beirut and treated the four officers, who commanded security agencies when Lebanon was still firmly under Syria’s thumb, to a rock-star welcome home from prison.
"I salute the tribunal," said Mihran Pamboukdjian, a retired industrialist sitting in a cafe in downtown Beirut. "Those who incarcerated the generals are part of a corrupt regime. It is well known that the Lebanese judiciary is corrupt."
Visitors to Hariri’s grave outside a giant mosque that he financed also said it was right to free the generals if they could not be indicted, even if this had come as a shock.
"To many Lebanese, it was as if the bottom had fallen out of the process," said a 59-year-old engineer who gave his name as Imad. "But after 10 minutes of thinking about it, it has dawned on people that this isn’t the end of it, but the beginning."
With Lebanese almost evenly split between rival camps, the tribunal’s move is unlikely to sway the election decisively.
Most voters have already made up their minds, in line with sectarian loyalties and local patronage. Many Lebanese analysts expect Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies to reverse the slim majority won by the anti-Syrian bloc after Hariri’s death.
Lebanon has endured prolonged political turmoil since then, much of it reflecting fierce rivalry between Syria and Saudi Arabia, among the main foreign patrons of Lebanese factions.
That tension has calmed in recent months, promoting chances for another uneasy national unity government after the election.
The tribunal may have demonstrated its integrity, but opponents of Western influence still view it with suspicion as part of a broader international intervention in Lebanon that includes foreign aid, U.N. peacekeepers and efforts to disarm Hezbollah.
Nadim Shehadi, a fellow at London’s Chatham House, linked faith in the tribunal with faith in the outside world’s ability to protect Lebanon, which he said had been badly dented by the failure to halt Israel’s 2006 war on Hezbollah guerrillas.
"This affects the way the Lebanese are debating how their system should look — whether they can go back to an old model, modify it or go to a radically different model," he said.
Hezbollah and others have queried the disproportionate effort devoted to tracking down Hariri’s killers, given the impunity granted to many in Lebanon’s bloody recent past.
"This tribunal only deals with a very narrow slice of that history," the ICTJ’s Wierda told Reuters. "It deals with a particular sequence of assassinations, but it’s one of many events in Lebanese history, particularly the war in 2006.
"This creates a challenge for legitimacy, but it doesn’t mean that justice should not be administered in these cases. It means, what will be done in other cases?"