The strange case of Michel Samaha
BEIRUT - Many people were shocked when former Lebanese Information minister and Syrian ally Michel Samaha was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in 2015 and then released for having served “most of his time in prison”.
Even supporters of the “resistance axis” were startled by the leniency of the military court’s decision. It was a blow to the judiciary and a slap to the state of Lebanon. So there is little wonder that, facing political and popular pressure, a court quashed the sentence and ordered a retrial.
Lebanon’s Military Tribunal of Cassation on April 8th sentenced Samaha to 13 years in prison with hard labour, a decision that Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, said “corrects” the previous verdict.
The charges against Samaha were far from being trivial or unsubstantiated.
Wissam al-Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces’ information branch who was assassinated in October 2012 — weeks after Samaha’s arrest — had presented overwhelming evidence that Samaha planned to trigger sectarian violence in Lebanon.
The plan allegedly included assassinations of Christian leaders and others who opposed Syrian President Bashar Assad and bombings at Iftar meals, when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast. Video and audio recordings depicted Samaha’s culpability and the direct involvement of high-ranking Syrian security officers.
The plot’s alleged purpose was to portray the Assad regime as secular and the only viable alternative to the chaos and sectarian conflicts engulfing Syria. In 2012 the United States, United Kingdom and a number of Arab countries viewed the Syrian regime as a brutal dictatorship that did not hesitate to quell peaceful demonstrators with unimaginable violence.
Failing to address the basic demands of a population for more participation and freedom and to undertake real reforms, Assad tried to redirect attention to some other “danger”: that of chaos and sectarian conflicts, raising the spectre of another Iraq, one that would encompass the Levant and extend to Lebanon and all of Syria if his regime collapsed.
This was not the first time an Assad regime faced the charge of playing the arsonist-fireman game — light the flame with the hope of being assigned the task of extinguishing it.
During the Lebanese civil war, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, was accused by many Lebanese of attempting to preside over their destiny and of inciting divisions among political factions and religious groups to present his position as broker of peace and guardian of civil order.
In 2006, during the troubles that led to violent sectarian conflict in Iraq, wasn’t Bashar Assad accused by the Iraqi prime minister of lending support to terrorists and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq?
More recently, haven’t there been numerous reports indicating that top Islamic State (ISIS) leaders were radicalised in prisons controlled by Bashar Assad’s regime and released at a critical moment of the Syrian revolution?
Since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the rift has been deepening between Sunnis and Shias. The militant Shia group Hezbollah’s support of a Syrian regime pummeling cities with barrel bombs inflamed Sunnis across the Arab world and most certainly those in neighbouring Lebanon.
On the Christian side in Lebanon, things do not bode well, either. Many Christians say they feel they are disenfranchised from their political rights, namely a fair representation in the parliament.
Their leaders missed the opportunity to bridge the widening gap between Sunnis and Shias. Instead of rising up to the challenge to broker a dialogue between their fellow citizens, asserting that Lebanon was a land of conviviality, they arranged themselves into opposing camps. Today they are united in a scheme, the promotion of “Christian rights”, that would fuel sectarian divisions.
In a nutshell, Samaha was sentenced. The plot foiled. But sectarianism remains on the rise in Lebanon and most of the Arab world.