Samaha case could spark sectarian fury in Lebanon

Friday 05/02/2016
Michel Samaha

News that you couldn’t make up has just occurred in Lebanon. A former minister, aligned with the Hezbollah bloc — and therefore an ally to Syrian President Bashar Assad — has been released from jail after being caught red-handed transporting explosives and believed to have been planning attacks and assassinations in Lebanon.

Michel Samaha was convicted on terrorism charges in May 2015 for smuggling explosives into Lebanon and planning attacks on political and religious leaders. Many at the time commented that Samaha would not serve a proper sentence in prison due to his loyalty to Hezbollah and its proxies.

In a country that has a top-security prison bursting with religious fanatics serving life sentences for similar crimes, it beggars belief that Samaha, a former information minister, has been effectively freed after a mere three-and-a-half years in jail.

The move naturally angered the Sunni-led opposition bloc, March 14, which campaigned hard for a tougher sentence.

The problem is that Samaha’s legal process is terribly complicated. He was originally sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison but, following an outcry over the leniency of his sentence, the verdict — his jail sentence — was annulled and a retrial ordered.

The infelicitous timing of Samaha’s bail was also extraordinary. Just when the March 14 bloc was having its own soap opera, complete with bad lip-synching and 1980s hair styles — the disgruntled Samir Geagea is supporting his nemesis presidential candidate who is aligned to Hezbollah — the Samaha case was thrown into script.

A military tribunal decided to release Samaha on bail despite the pending conclusion to his retrial. The decision enraged the March 14 bloc, which has backed Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi’s request that the cabinet orders the retrial of Samaha moved to the Judicial Council rather than the military tribunal.

Some in Lebanon say that military courts fall under the auspices of Hezbollah more than other groups. Others say the procedures of civilian courts are more in line with the legal systems of democratic countries. It’s more likely that Lebanon’s Justice minister is trying to avoid a pro- Hezbollah judge presiding over the military tribunal.

Samaha’s trial has become a political football. The trial was postponed many times because of the absence of Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian security services, who remains in Syria. After a judge separated the cases against the two accused men, Samaha’s trial began in April 2015.

His sentence at the time shocked many as being too lenient, given that there were videos clearly showing him giving explosives to an accomplice along with instructions.

That leniency is going to create a storm in Lebanon as it sets a precedent for “terrorism”.

Samaha’s acts were apparently designed to be against Sunni religious figures and, given his powerful masters, will be considered with less concern than say a Sunni “terrorist” such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who planned attacks against the army and is expected to spend the rest of his life in jail.

The Samaha case is also going to have an effect on the security services, which, some argue, will not go the extra lengths required to capture those smuggling arms. Even regular soldiers at border posts might be demoralised by the sentencing, which will undoubtedly encourage others to start smuggling given that the clear message that those caught doing acts of “terrorism” on behalf of Syria will be handed light sentences.

Perhaps it’s time that a single definition of the word “terrorism” is agreed upon and a special tribunal made up of a cadre of judges from all religious groups is created.