Ana Maria Luca

What’s next for Samaha?

Lebanese policemen standing guard at the entrance Samaha’s residence in Ashrafieh, Beirut.

After a six-month investigation into the alleged terrorist activities of former Lebanese Minister Michel Samaha, first Military Investigation Judge Riyad Abu Ghida asked today for the maximum penalty for Samaha and his alleged accomplice, Syrian intelligence official Ali Mamlouk: death.


Earlier today, the Lebanese Military Court issued an official indictment against Samaha and Mamlouk on charges of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Lebanon.


Samaha, a known political ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s family, is the highest-ranking official to ever have been indicted in Lebanon. The former minister was detained in August 2012, when an intervention squad of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch stormed his residences in both Ashrafieh and Jwar, Mount Lebanon. 


The case was first reviewed by a civil judge, Sami Sader. But despite his status as a civilian, Samaha’s case was subsequently referred to military judge Abou Ghida. Military courts, by definition, generally deal only with internal military discipline cases, but in Lebanon they have extended jurisdiction. Lebanese law allows military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism, espionage, treason, weapons possession, and draft evasion, as well as any conflict between a civilian and a member of the military.


The ex-minister is one of the most controversial people in the Lebanese political landscape. A Greek Catholic, he started his political career as a member of the Kataeb Party in the 1970s. His role was as an intermediary between the Christian party and Damascus during the Lebanese civil war. He became the Minister of Information in 1992 and has also served as Minister of Tourism. His mandate as Minister of Information was renewed during Rafiq Hariri’s cabinets. Samaha lost his seat as an MP in 2000, but in 2002 became Damascus’s man as the Minister of Information in Rafiq Hariri’s government.


His activities after losing the cabinet position were closely tied to Damascus, as he was a personal friend of the Syrian president. According to unconfirmed leaks from the investigation, Samaha even confessed to planning terrorist attacks that would have been carried out during Ramadan iftars in north Lebanon, and to smuggling explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon. Leaks also involved a mystery witness, Milad Kfoury, who allegedly tipped the ISF Information Branch to Samaha’s plans. The evidence, according to the numerous leaks, included audio recordings involving Samaha making terror plots with the head of Syrian intelligence Ali Mamlouk.


The death penalty requested by the Investigative Judge is, however, just procedure, according to lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr. “When an indictment is issued, the investigative judge has to ask for the highest penalty provided by the law. In terrorism cases that is death,” he explained. He also said that the penalty requested at the indictment is not necessarily the same sentence pronounced at the end of the trial. Further, the penalty requested at the initial indictment can change before the beginning of the trial. The defendant has the right to attack it at the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation; only if it is confirmed the trial may begin.


There is no precedent in the Lebanese justice system regarding any sentence for terrorism cases. The only two cases that have been prosecuted are that of Fatah al-Islam, of which over 100 alleged members have been charged and investigated after the Nahr al-Bared war in 2007, and the upcoming case of Michel Samaha/Ali Mamlouk. In the case of Samaha/Mamlouk, the prosecution only took 6 months to formulate an indictment, and the Fatah al-Islam case is still under investigation.


But according to An Nahar’s political commentator and lawyer Nabil Bou Monsef, Samaha’s case was much simpler in terms of handling evidence in comparison to that of Fatah al-Islam. “The two cases required a totally different procedure. In Samaha’s case, the proof was abundant,” Bou Monsef said. “However, this is just the prosecution stage. Samaha can still defend himself and his family needs to trust the transparency of judges and courts in Lebanon,” he pointed out.


Human rights organizations in Lebanon have criticized the practice of sending civilians to military courts, because of the lack of transparency. Military hearings usually take place behind closed doors and the military judge is not obliged to justify the sentence. Human rights violations while in detention, trials of questionable fairness, and also of unfair sentences and acquittals are abundant. 


However, Sakr says that Samaha’s trial may and should be public. Whatever the outcome, a sentence pronounced in a Lebanese military court is final. It is not attackable at a higher international court. “Lebanon is not a member of the Council of Europe and there is no equivalent forum where to raise these issues. The only tool to work with is the Lebanese criminal law,” he pointed out.


Bou Monsef said that the death penalty is not uncommon in Lebanon, as it was pronounced in several Israel spy cases. However, “the Lebanese authorities have never gone through with it and the sentences have been stopped by governmental or presidential decrees,” he stressed.


Yara Chehayed contributed translating. She tweets at @yarachehayed.


Ana Maria Luca tweets at @aml1609. 


Read this article in Arabic

Lebanese security forces arrested Michel Samaha, former Information and Tourism minister, on August 9, 2012. (AFP Photo)

“When an indictment is issued, the investigative judge has to ask for the highest penalty provided by the law. In terrorism cases, that is death.”