BEIRUT (Reuters) - A former Lebanese minister who is close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was freed on bail on Thursday after serving a jail term for smuggling explosives into Lebanon from Syria and planning attacks, the national news agency said.
Former Information Minister Michel Samaha was sentenced to 4-1/2 years in prison in May, having been detained since August 2012.. A jail year in Lebanon is nine months.
A military court released him on bail on Thursday, secured by 150 million Lebanese pounds ($100,000).
The decision drew condemnation and criticism from Assad’s opponents in Lebanon including former prime minister Saad al-Hariri. Some angry Lebanese took to the streets in the capital Beirut and blocked at least two roads in protest at his release.
“Regardless of the reasons behind the court’s decision to release Samaha, it (remains) a decision to release a criminal who is involved in one of the dirtiest crimes against Lebanon,” Hariri said in a statement.
However, the powerful Lebanese Shi‘ite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad in Syria’s civil war, dismissed the criticism. “Loud comments objecting to the court’s decision ... only express maliciousness,” said Mohamad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc.
He added that Samaha had served his sentence and there was no legal justification for keeping him in prison.
Top Syrian officials previously denied the charges against Samaha but did not comment on his conviction last May.
The arrest of Samaha and indictments against two Syrian officials in the case marked a major break with the past when Syria dominated Lebanon and public figures associated with it were largely untouchable.
Still, Syria has retained considerable influence in the affairs of its smaller neighbor state even after it withdrew troops in 2005 under international pressure following the assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in a huge Beirut car bombing.
Reporting by Laila Bassam, Lisa Barrington and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Mark Heinrich