Why the Samaha case in Lebanon is tainted
BEIRUT - The saying “all men are created equal” has little meaning in Lebanon’s justice system, a fact that became more apparent in the trial and conviction of former minister Michel Samaha, who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison after admitting to plotting terror attacks in Lebanon.
The outcome is a clear indication of the disintegration of basic institutions in Lebanon, where members of the political class close to the “deep state” — Syria’s inner intelligence circle — remain above the law.
Samaha, a Christian intimately linked to Damascus, received the relatively light slap on the wrist at a military tribunal on May 13th despite video recordings showing him discussing plans for the killings and explosions at the behest of a senior Syrian security chief, General Ali al-Mamlouk.
The videos, recorded by an agent working for Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), showed Samaha explaining that the terror plots were approved by Mamlouk and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Samaha, a former Lebanese minister of communications and an adviser to Assad, admitted in one video that Syrian intelligence provided him with $170,000 and explosives intended for bombings in areas where sectarian tensions run high or for targeting Sunni political figures opposed to the Damascus regime.
Samaha argued he was the victim of entrapment and actually wanted to use the bombings to force the closure of the Syria- Lebanon border to stop the movement of Lebanese fighters beefing up rebel ranks in Syria’s civil war.
The Samaha verdict is tainted with political corruption, particularly when compared to similar sentences.
An obvious comparison is with another major terrorism case, a four-month battle between extremists of the radical Fateh Islam organisation and the Lebanese Army in 2007.
In that battle in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, 170 soldiers were killed. Of the 100 Islamists who were captured, 91 were imprisoned without trial for more than seven years. According to lawyer Hashem Ayoubi, 15-20 of the Islamists who spent all those years in prison awaiting trial ended up being sentenced to one or two years behind bars.
Justice in Lebanon is thus far from being blind to political clout.
According to the World Justice Project’s Role of Law Index for 2014, Lebanon ranks 49th globally and fourth among seven Middle East and North African countries in overall rule of law performance. It gets worse.
Lebanon’s civil justice system ranks 70th overall and second to last in the region, mainly because of corruption, long delays before trials and discrimination against marginalised groups.
Lebanese nationals and politicians denounced Samaha’s light sentence. Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a former ISF commander, proposed referring the case to the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Rifi said his decision was motivated by a “link between the explosives carried by Samaha from Syria to Lebanon” and those used to assassinate George Hawi, the former head of the Lebanese Communist Party, as well as journalist and parliamentarian Samir Kassir, in the wake of the Hariri killing.
Samaha’s case adds to sectarianism and confirms for many Lebanese the existence of a “deep state” protecting Syrian and Iranian interests in the country.
Samaha’s light sentence also adds to the grievances of a large section of the population who, ten years after the Hariri assassination, are still waiting for the arrest of the conspirators. Five defendants — members of the Syrian-backed Hezbollah — are being tried in absentia in The Hague for carrying out the bombing in Beirut that killed Hariri and 22 other people.
Lebanese authorities have not arrested the suspects as they remain under the protection of Hezbollah, which vowed to “cut off the hands” of anyone seeking to apprehend them.
The Samaha verdict highlights the culture of impunity prevailing among Lebanon’s political class. It is an indicator of the dismantling of state institutions that are main guarantors of civil liberties. It also tells the Lebanese that justice only applies to those not rich or well-connected enough to escape it.