Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Faith in Lebanon’s military judiciary revived

The sentencing of Michel Samaha to 13 years in prison in connection with terrorist charges has reassured segments of Lebanese society that the military judiciary is above bias, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 8 April, the Lebanese Military Court of Cassation, the country’s highest military judicial body, sentenced former minister Michel Samaha to 13 years in prison in connection with the transport of explosives from Syria to Lebanon. The explosives were to be used in bombings and assassinations in Lebanon’s north. The judgement was met with relief by many in Lebanon, particularly among 14 March forces, while 8 March forces greeted it with quiet resentment.

The court also ruled to strip Samaha of his civil and political rights. The court found that Samaha — seen on video footage planning the crimes — harboured criminal intent and was not entrapped by Lebanese security, which prevented him from making good on his intent. The court said that Samaha aimed to carry out terrorist acts and attempted to kill Lebanese politicians and parliamentarians in cooperation with the Syrian regime.

Samaha will only serve seven and a half years in prison, since he has already been in custody for four and a half years in connection with the case.

The first-instance military court sentenced Samaha to three and half years in prison, which he served in custody during his trial. After the prosecution appealed the judgement, the Military Court of Cassation released him during the retrial, while also banning him from travel.

The first-instance court subpoenaed senior Syrian security official Ali Mamluk, who is thought to have given orders to Samaha, but Mamluk failed to appear in court. The court thus severed Mamluk’s case from that of Samaha.

The Military Court of Cassation’s release of Samaha on 14 January sparked protests, especially from 14 March forces, as demands increased to refer Samaha’s trial to the Justice Council, Lebanon’s highest civilian court. The cabinet’s refusal to cede to this demand was one of the reasons for the resignation of Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi.

“The Military Cassation Court’s judgement against Michel Samaha, whom it described as a terrorist, corrected the previous lenient sentence,” said Saad Hariri, the head of Lebanon’s Future Movement. Hariri’s movement had rejected the original sentence and vowed not to remain silent.

In a series of tweets, Hariri said: “The terrorist Samaha today returns to prison, the natural place for everyone who plots to kill innocents and drag Lebanon into civil strife and fighting.”

He added: “The judgement against Samaha proves that judicial action and transparency with public opinion are the correct path of justice, far from reckless political grandstanding and conduct.”

Commenting on the judgement against Samaha, MP Walid Jumblatt wondered whether the Lebanese judiciary, having taken action in the Samaha case, would continue to act on corruption cases.

Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk tweeted, “The judgement of the Military Cassation Court affirms our confidence in the head of the court and its members.”

The head of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, former prime minister Fouad Siniora, expressed his satisfaction with the decision, welcoming the court’s judgement against Samaha.

“We make no bets in Lebanon, except on the state and its institutions,” Siniora said. “This experience proves that our bet was successful and well placed, evidenced by the conclusion reached by yesterday’s judgement.”

He said that the outcome protected the judiciary and justice, as well as Lebanon and its institutions, sending a message to Lebanese that they should hold fast to their state, civic peace, and their civil democratic system. He said that the ruling demonstrates that applying the law and maintaining peaceful protest and democratic struggle can bring a positive, just outcome.

“The judgement against Samaha restored the credibility and righteousness of the struggle and sacrifices of the martyrs, especially the blood of the martyr Wissam Al-Hassan and the blood of the martyrs of the independence uprising on 14 March,” Siniora said, referring to the security chief who exposed the Samaha case.

“It restored the righteousness of the peaceful struggle of the Lebanese people against attempts to control and tame it through intimidation by arms.”

The first-instance court’s ruling and the subsequent release of Samaha sparked a crisis in the country. The forces of 14 March saw it as evidence of the military judiciary’s bias and continued subservience to the Syrian security regime, seen by 14 March as having outsized influence on both military and civilian courts in Lebanon.

The forces of 14 March, especially Sunni forces, had accused the military judiciary of dealing harshly with Sunni Lebanese, especially defendants in terrorism cases, while showing more leniency for those involved in acts of terrorism targeting 14 March forces.

Samaha’s case was important because he was apprehended in the act of transporting explosives from Syria. He was also captured on videos that exposed his plans to carry out bombings and assassinations of politicians and MPs, mostly in the north of Lebanon. Samaha confessed to the crime, but said he was entrapped by a Lebanese security agent.

For 14 March forces, the case is also significant because they believe it the cause of the 2012 assassination of Wissam Al-Hassan, the director of the intelligence branch of the internal security forces. Hassan’s branch exposed the case and apprehended Samaha using an undercover detective who led Samaha to believe he was working with him and recorded their conversations.

Rifi, a former ally of the Future Movement, took an increasingly strong stance against the military court in recent months, both before and after his resignation, demanding that the case be referred to the civilian judiciary. He also raised the possibility of bringing the case to an international court, warning that double standards in justice would elevate the law of the jungle in Lebanon.

The judgement also led to speculation about Rifi’s return to the Justice Ministry, a return that some in the Future Movement, who have tired of Rifi’s recalcitrance, do not welcome. This faction sees his actions as grandstanding at the expense of the movement, especially on sensitive subjects related to Hizbullah and Syria.

Since nothing in Lebanon is very far from politics, it was notable that on the night before the judgement was handed down, Machnouk, who is close to the head of the Future Movement and is tasked with security coordination with Hizbullah, announced his confidence in the judgement of the Military Cassation Court, saying that whatever its ruling, it would be fair.

This statement by Machnouk, who is one of the Future Movement’s representatives in the dialogue with Hizbullah, suggests that the minister may have had advance notice that the judgement would satisfy his side. The court’s decision may indicate an attempt to regulate the conflict between 14 March and 8 March forces, led by Hizbullah, setting it within a normal legal and political framework.

A different outcome, such as the referral of the case to a civilian or international court, could shake the country and the status of the military judiciary, which is of major importance in the country since it hears terrorism cases, including the case of Salafi leader Ahmed Al-Assir, who enjoyed some popularity among Sunni circles in the southern city of Sidon.

If Samaha had been given a lenient sentence, after having admitted to planning crimes and being caught on video speaking of the details of the plot, the military courts could credibly be accused of bias toward Syria and its allies, which could have consequences for cases before the courts involving extremist Sunni defendants.

These extremists were arrested by the Lebanese army with the consent of the Future Movement, the political representative of Sunnis, as part of an understanding with Hizbullah to defuse violence between the two sides and end security infighting.

The agreement put an end to nearly 20 rounds of clashes between pro-Syrian Alawite fighters and Hizbullah, on the one hand, and Sunni fighters, on the other, affiliated with several major Sunni forces in Lebanon.

Militants from both sides were referred to trial. Some fled, including Rifaat Eid, the secretary-general of the Arab Democratic Party, the representative of Alawites in Lebanon, who escaped to Syria.

Despite the severity of the political conflict between Hizbullah and the Future Movement, which was exacerbated by the recent crisis between Hizbullah and Gulf countries, at the security level an understanding prevails. This understanding allowed the formation of a government and permitted the Lebanese army to enter politically sensitive areas, whether hotbeds of armed political activity (mostly Sunni) or criminal hotspots (mostly Shia).

Nevertheless, Machnouk has complained that the response of Hizbullah and Amal to attempts to facilitate security action to confront crime in Shia areas has been less than expected. Hizbullah and Amal strongly deny this, saying they have not denied Lebanese security and army forces entry to any area.

Given this context, it is clear that the significance of the latest judgement goes far beyond the person of Samaha himself. The sentence is likely to restore some 14 March supporters’ confidence in the Lebanese security and judicial order.

Forces of 14 March, especially Sunnis in the coalition, have long felt that these systems were biased toward 8 March, led by Hizbullah and Amal, and still under the sway of Syria, which dominated the country from the 1970s until the Syrian army withdrew in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February of that year.

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