Dossier: Samir Geagea
Leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) movement
The conditions of Samir Geagea's imprisonment speak volumes about his stature as a nationalist leader. The main concern of Lebanon's Syrian-backed government is not that the former commander of the Christian community's largest wartime militia will find a way to escape through tons of reinforced concrete and steel or evade the heavy concentration of Lebanese and Syrian soldiers at the ministry, but that he will find a way to communicate with his followers. Geagea's words are regarded by Syria as an existential threat to its continuing occupation of Lebanon.
Geagea was born in 1952 in the Ain Roumaneh neighborhood of Beirut to a family of modest means from the northern Lebanese village of Bsharri. The son of an adjutant in the Army, Geagea came of age at a time when the barriers to socio-economic advancement within the Christian community had begun to weaken and record numbers of students were arriving at universities on the strength of their intelligence and self-discipline, rather than wealth or family connections. Geagea was one of them, arriving at American University of Beirut (AUB) to study medicine in 1972.
AUB, the birthplace of political movements ranging from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was a hotbed of activism in the early 1970s. Although Geagea had been active in the student branch of the Kata'ib (Phalange) party when he was in high school, it was here that he found his leadership calling.
After the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Geagea interrupted his studies to participate in the defense of Christian towns and villages from Palestinian attack. Although he would later complete his studies at the University of St. Joseph, Geagea never practiced medicine - the massacres and dislocations experienced by the Christian community in the early war years impelled him to devote his career to their defense. As the Lebanese Army splintered and government authority crumbled, Geagea proved himself to be a fearless soldier and able leader, quickly rising through the ranks of Bashir Gemayel's Kata'ib militia and its successor, the Lebanese Forces (LF).
The Palestinian threat to Lebanon had been counteracted to a certain extent by the end of 1976, but the Christian community faced an even more powerful threat with the entry of Syrian forces into Lebanon that year. While the Kata'ib staunchly opposed Syrian intervention, some Christian leaders who had steadfastly fought (or sent their followers to fight) the PLO's attempted takeover of the country were perfectly willing to accommodate Syria's hegemonic ambitions so long as they obtained a share of the post-war political spoils. Former President Suleiman Franjieh, whose militiamen fought bravely against Palestinians with whom he had no financial interests, defected from the Christian alliance because of his long-standing business ties to Syrian President Hafez Assad. By 1978, Franjieh's Zghorta-based militia, commanded by his son, Tony, was coordinating directly with Syrian military intelligence and waging a relentless wave of terrorism, ambushes, and assassinations against the Kata'ib throughout north Lebanon. When a local Kata'ib leader, Joud al-Bayeh, was murdered by a Franjieh assassination squad on June 8, Gemayel tried to settle the problem through negotiations via Maronite Patriarch Antonios Khreich. When these negotiations failed, Gemayel decided to retaliate with a reprisal raid deep into the warlord's domain and hand-picked a special force to carry it out. One of the units was led by 26-year old Geagea, whose hometown was traditionally at odds with the Franjieh clan
The plan was to arrest Joud al-Bayeh's assassins, who were seeking protection and refuge in Franjieh's palatial summer residence in Ehden, a symbol of the family's prestige and a major arsenal and communications center. On the evening of June 12, Geagea's task force infiltrated the area at night and began attacking the compound just before dawn. The defenders refused to surrender and a long gun battle ensued in which Geagea was seriously injured and fell unconscious on the road leading to the compound. The operation involved close house to house combat and was successful from a military standpoint, but when the smoke cleared and Gemayel's men entered the compound, they unexpectedly discovered among the dead Tony Franjieh and several members of his family in one of the guards' hangars (the warlord's unwillingness to surrender in spite of the imminent danger to his family has remained an enduring mystery).
After recuperating at a hospital in France, Geagea returned to Lebanon and was appointed commander of LF forces in north Lebanon. Over the next several years, he fortified LF outposts, expanded recruitment and built new training centers. More importantly, he earned the unswerving loyalty of roughly 1,500 militiamen under his direct command. Most, like Geagea, had been dislocated from their villages and towns in areas of north Lebanon controlled by Syria and its militia allies - they lived in barracks, unlike LF soldiers in east Beirut, who could return to their homes each night. Having tasted insecurity so acutely, Geagea and his followers viewed the security of the Christian community, not its political share of the post-war spoils, as their top priority.
Lebanon's First Republic had failed to provide this security. The LF's main function was to fill the security void left by the breakdown of the army and government administration - a mandate that also necessitated the development of a highly organized civil infrastructure. Unlike their counterparts in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, inhabitants of the LF-ruled enclave enjoyed modern healthcare, affordable public transport, welfare support, and personal security. What little prosperity the Lebanese Christian community still enjoys today is largely due to the LF's success in preserving an environment in which children could still go to school - in sharp contrast to West Beirut, where the rule of Muslim militias placed guns, not books, in children's hands.
Hobeiqa soon made an astonishing political turnabout of his own, aligning himself with Damascus in hopes of reaching an accord with Syrian-backed militias and assuming the presidency in a Syrianized post-war republic. In spite of widespread Christian opposition, Hobeiqa signed the December 1985 Tripartite Accord, a Syrian-brokered agreement that would have legalized the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In response, LF forces loyal to Geagea swiftly took control over the Christian enclave and Hobeiqa fled to Syrian-occupied territory, nursing an intense personal hatred of Geagea.
Geagea's ability to mobilize the LF rank and file twice against those who sought to accommodate Syria's hegemonic ambitions had much to do with his incorruptibility. Unlike other "warlords" in Lebanon, Geagea had "an almost puritanical disdain for material concern," notes historian Theodor Hanf in his voluminous study of the war. Even Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal, who is scathingly critical of Maronite militia leaders in his best-selling book on the war, described Geagea as "well-read, thoughtful, and possessed of a revolutionary soul."
At the time, Geagea's defiance of Damascus appeared risky. By the mid-1980s, the LF had lost its principal external patron (Israel), the Christian community's financial strength had been devastated by the collapse of the Lebanese economy, American interest in supporting Lebanon had dropped to nil, and Syrian forces or their militia allies had gained control of most of the country. However, Geagea managed to defend the Christian enclave by forging an alliance with Iraq and maintaining close relations with the United States. The logic of the Iraq alliance was pure and simple - Saddam Hussein had no interests in Lebanon other than to check Syrian expansion. Iraqi arms enabled the LF to build the Christian enclave into an impenetrable fortress. As Lebanon's Muslim militias turned on each other with a ferocity not seen in Lebanon since the height of the war in 1976, residents of the Christian enclave went about with their lives as best they could.
The Inter-Christian War
Unfortunately, the hard-won security enjoyed by the Christian community came undone. In the fall of 1988, a constitutional crisis unfolded because of the parliament's inability to agree on a presidential successor to Gemayel. Fifteen minutes before the expiration of his term, Gemayel appointed the commander of the Army, Gen. Michel Aoun, interim prime minister until such time as a new president could be elected. Although Aoun had thousands of well-trained and equipped soldiers at his command, he exercised little authority outside of the presidential palace and a small area of east Beirut. Following an Arab League meeting in Fas and encouragement from the Syrians to extend his authority to the Christian enclave, in early 1989 General Aoun demanded that the LF withdraw from a number of strategic areas, including the capital's main port.
Geagea opposed Aoun's drive to expand his authority and power at the expense of the LF for several reasons. First, so long as other militias in the Syrian occupied areas continued to be armed and trained by Damascus and Tehran, the LF militia served many critical functions in the defense of the Christian homeland that could not readily be assumed by the army. A militia, by nature, is premised on the idea that locally organized units, fighting in defense of their own villages, outperform army regulars who are away from home. It was this principle that allowed Lebanese Christians to defend themselves against overwhelming odds during the war - weakening the militia would leave the community exposed.
Moreover, while all the other militias were operating to defend their own constituents, political considerations prohibited the army from acting as defender of the Christian community. The Army follows whichever command it receives - had Aoun been replaced, the same army could have been used to achieve diametrically opposing goals as an instrument of Syrian occupation. Even with Aoun at the helm, Geagea feared the general's ambition to lead all of Lebanon could bring him either to cut a deal with the Syrians or sacrifice the defense of the Christian community in pursuit of it - Christian leaders aspiring to public office had been committing both sins for over a generation. In short, Geagea insisted that the militia could not be disbanded until a political settlement dissolving all militias had been reached - until then, homeland defense came first.
The ensuing violence between the army and the LF, initiated by Aoun, fatally undermined the Christian community's ability to defend itself. Dissapointed by Syria's lukewarm response, Aoun declared a "war of liberation" against Syrian forces in Lebanon. The LF supported him and put all its potential into this war, but the situation came to a standstill and the Syrians relentlessly shelled east Beirut, virtually emptying it of its inhabitants. Areas of the Christian enclave that had been untouched by violence throughout the entire civil were devastated by the fighting. After a fierce battle in Souk El Gharb, a ceasefire was reached and Aoun endorsed a Saudi and American sponsored national reconciliation initiative.
The Taef Accord
In October 1989, surviving members of Lebanon's 1972-1976 parliament met in Taef, Saudi Arabia, and signed a National Reconciliation Accord. The agreement provided for political reforms that shifted the sectarian balance of power in government; the disarmament of all illegal militias; the redeployment of Syrian forces to the Beqaa Valley within two years, and the withdrawal of all Syrian forces at a future date agreed upon by both governments. Aoun ultimately opposed the Taef Accord, arguing that it effectively legalized the occupation indefinitely. However, Geagea and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir both supported the agreement because they believed it would put an end to the war, and because they believed American and Saudi assurances that Syria would withdraw all its forces once civil peace was restored (although the Taef Accord did not explicitly require Syria to withdraw, Assad was said to have privately assured Riyadh and Washington that he would do so).
After a long period of polarization and fighting within the Christian enclave, and after the assassination of President-elect Rene Mouawwad in the Syrian-controlled area of West Beirut, the Syrians invaded Aoun's area in October 1990. LF units went on high alert to defend their territory in the event that Syrian troops invaded the Christian heartland (which they did not, owing to American pressure) and offered protection to both soldiers and refugees fleeing the fighting. However, Geagea's trust in the Americans was ill placed.
The Second Republic
From its very beginnings, the new republic was dominated by pro-Syrian militia leaders, such as Nabih Berri, who assumed to the post of parliament speaker; Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who (ironically) became minister of the displaced, and Hobeiqa, who held a number of different cabinet positions. In light of Syria's refusal to fulfill its obligation under the Taef Accord and redeploy its military forces to the Beqaa and its attempts to dominate the political process, Geagea twice declined cabinet positions offered to him.
Nevertheless, Geagea saw to it that the LF fulfilled its obligations under the accord by completely dismantling its military apparatus and reorganizing itself as a political party. In spite of Syria's blatant violations of the Taef Accord, Geagea rejected calls by some within the LF to take up arms once again, arguing that the international community's apathy toward the Syrian occupation would doom any attempt at armed struggle just as surely as it had doomed Aoun's misadventure. However, Geagea resolved to resist Syria's renewed campaign to subjugate Lebanon with all peaceful means at his disposal. The LF refused to participate in the 1992 parliamentary elections, arguing that Syria's heavy military presence in the country precluded a free and fair electoral process.
Geagea's defiance was not powerful enough to bring down the system, but it was powerful enough to shame the governing elite in the eyes of the population. Assad tolerated this for a time, while Syria consolidated its control over the institutions of government. Some outspoken activists, such as Butrous Khawand, a member of the Kata'ib Party's politburo and a former LF officer who was active in mobilizing anti-Syrian protests, were simply abducted by Syrian military intelligence, never to be seen again. Because of Geagea's public profile (and highly-skilled bodyguards), however, Assad could not simply make him disappear. The silencing of Geagea had to wait until Syria had gained control over the judiciary.
While Lebanon's largely Western-trained judiciary had a long-standing reputation for integrity, it gradually succumbed to Syrian domination in the early 1990s. Incorruptible judges were forced into retirement, while those who were willing to dip their hands into the cookie jar were promoted and became forever subject to extortion by the pro-Syrian political class. When the head of the Judicial Inspection Bureau, Abd al-Basit Ghandour, brought disciplinary charges against two judges linked to Syrian drug trafficking, Syrian troops surrounded his home. Not surprisingly, the bureau exonerated the two judges in a sharply divided vote. Ghandour retired the following year and Munif Uwaydat, a judge who defended his two corrupt colleagues during the hearing, was subsequently appointed prosecutor-general. By 1994, Assad was in a position to bring the full force of the Lebanese state down on whomever he liked.
On February 27, 1994, a bomb exploded in the Sayyidat al-Najjat church in the village of Zouk Mikael, deep within the Maronite heartland, killing nine people and wounding dozens. The bombing, which followed a string of smaller attacks targeting Christians, caused panic throughout the Christian community. Afterwards, Geagea accused the government of failing in its primary responsibility of protecting its citizens. "It is no more acceptable that our officials are content [with only] voicing condemnation,'' he told reporters.
The explosion was preceded by warnings of church bombings relayed to the Patriarch by Hezbollah intelligence operatives and came a few days after the killing of 43 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, leading to public speculation that it was carried out by Muslims. However, government officials immediately focused their investigation on so-called "Israeli collaborators" in the Christian community. Several LF members who were arrested and tortured in the following weeks were said in media reports to have implicated Fouad Malek, Geagea's second-in-command, who was himself arrested. On March 23, the Lebanese cabinet issued a decree dissolving the Lebanese Forces, suspending the news bulletins of private media outlets, and lifting the postwar amnesty law's protection of those "who continue to commit" state security crimes. The government's strategy had become crystal clear - allegations of LF involvement in the blast were designed to pave the way for Geagea's arrest for alleged wartime activities.
Geagea, who went into seclusion following the bombing, was warned by President Elias Hrawi and other sympathetic Lebanese officials that he was going to be arrested and was offered safe passage out of the country. But Geagea decided to stay and fight, and was arrested on April 21.
Syria's move against Geagea was clearly inspired by the regional climate - it came six months after the Oslo Accords were signed, at a time when the United States was willing to do anything to persuade Assad to come on board the peace train. American Ambassador Mark Hambley initially showed interest in the Geagea case but quickly stopped mentioning it in public. Lebanese officials were remarkably candid about the political motivation behind the government's crackdown. "We enacted the amnesty law so that everyone could join the state-building project . . . unfortunately, [Geagea] turned down our offers and persisted in his own project," President Hrawi remarked just weeks after his arrest.
As expected, the authorities used Geagea's arrest as a pretext to open investigations into his alleged links to several assassinations and assassination attempts during the war. It turned out that the government had no substantial evidence of Geagea's involvement in the church bombing (of which he was eventually found innocent), so his trial for that crime was repeatedly adjourned for lengthy periods of time for no explicable reason other than to allow the other "trials" to proceed.
Although Geagea was represented by a top-notch defense team led by Edmond Naim, one of the country's leading constitutional lawyers, all of his trials before the five-member Judicial Council were gross miscarriages of justice. Detainees who were unwilling to implicate Geagea were subjected to brutal torture and forced to signed confessions, a practice documented by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. One detainee, Fawzi al-Racy, died in custody - the government labeled his cause of death a "heart attack," but refused to permit an independent autopsy or allow his family to see the body, which was rumored to have been grossly disfigured. That the five-judge panel categorically refused to disallow confessions extracted through torture came as a surprise to no one - it had been handpicked to ensure that Geagea was convicted. Moeen Osseiran, the head of Lebanon's Third Appeal Chamber, declined an offer to serve on the court, claiming his workload was too heavy, but years later he told friends that the case was too political for him to render a fair verdict. Judge George Rizk, an investigating magistrate, recused himself when the government asked him to indict Geagea.
Lack of supporting evidence and bizarre inconsistencies in the prosecution claims also went conspicuously unacknowledged by the judges. At the time of the church bombing, for example, several of the defendants charged in absentia with perpetrating it were living abroad - specifically in Cyprus, Canada, Sweden and Australia. According to exit and reentry records of all four countries, the defendants could not have been in Lebanon during the period in question. Government prosecutors claimed that they used fake passports to travel to and from Lebanon but produced no evidence of this and the claim went unchallenged by the judges. Interestingly, the Lebanese authorities did not even bother to formally seek extradition of Geagea's supposed accomplices who lived abroad - merely the unsubstantiated claim of their involvement provided sufficient cover for the judges to declare Geagea guilty of ordering the 1990 assassination of Dany Chamoun, the 1989 killing of LF official Elias Zayek, the 1991 attempted assassination of then-Defense Minister Michel Murr, and the 1987 killing of then-Prime Minister Rashid Karami. Geagea received four death sentences, each commuted to life in prison with hard labor.
Although Lebanese law does not permit appeals of the Judicial Court's rulings, one of Geagea's trials did receive a judicial review. One of Geagea's codefendants in the Chamoun murder trial who was convicted in absentia, Attef al-Habr, later applied for political asylum in Australia and was turned down. In reviewing Habr's appeal of the decision in 1999, an Australian federal court closely examined the proceedings of its Lebanese counterpart and had this to say: "No Australian Court would ever have convicted the applicant on the basis of the evidence which appears, from the verdict, to have been put before the Lebanese Court." This assessment calls into question the same court's verdicts against Geagea.
The gross miscarriage of justice inflicted by the Syrians on Geagea was viewed as deeply unsettling even by many of his enemies who believe he was guilty of some or all of the crimes for which he was tried. All major militias carried out assassinations during the Lebanese civil war - Geagea himself survived nearly a dozen of them. The pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir remarked after the first of his convictions that "the Lebanese would have preferred a broader judgment, one against the whole war rather than the conviction of one of its heroes."
In November 2002, the outgoing president of the Judicial Council, Nasri Lahoud (who received this appointment because he is related to the President Emile Lahoud) complained in an interview that judicial independence in Lebanon was "mere poetry." Lahoud, who also spearheaded the government campaign against the LF while serving as Chief Military Prosecutor, said that the courts functioned as an "administrative" branch of government..
The Politics of Decapitation
In the years that followed Geagea's imprisonment, LF members were subjected to intense harassment by the government. Hundreds were detained and an estimated 1,500 fled the country, while the ban on the movement limited the ability of those who remained to organize collectively. At the same time, many Lebanese found inspiration in Geagea's sacrifice - his imprisonment led many intellectual, students and professionals to join the LF in spite of the government's intimidation and harassment. Geagea's closest supporters in Lebanon, led by his wife Setrida, remained at the core of serious opposition to the regime.
In recent years, the Syrians tried to paralyze the movement by encouraging a group of former LF officials to sideline Setrida and organize independently under their own pro-Syrian political platform (an initiative that paralleled the hostile takeover of the Kata'ib party by Karim Pakradouni). The splitters, led by Fouad Malek, met publicly with President Lahoud in 2001 and were reportedly promised a political party license in the name of the LF (which would allow them to claim an estimated $70 million in LF assets seized by the government in 1994). Malek called for a general assembly of LF members to choose a new leadership, but Setrida rejected the obvious ploy to seize control of the movement. In June, Geagea's lawyers relayed a statement from their imprisoned client to the media, accusing Malek of launching a "political coup d'etat" aimed at dividing the movement.
Having failed to co-opt Geagea's mass following, the authorities intensified their crackdown on the LF. Hindi was forced to read a televised confession admitting to collaboration with Israel and served 15 months in prison. In May 2002, a prominent member of the LF student committee, Ramzi Irani, was abducted in broad daylight and tortured to death, his body eventually found inside the trunk of his car. As is always the case when anti-Syrian activists are murdered in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, the criminal investigation went nowhere. Earlier this month, the corpse of another LF activist, Pierre Boulos, was found in the trunk of his car. Syria has made no attempt to disguise its killings of Geagea's supporters as random acts of violence - it wants to make sure the pattern of assassinations is blatantly self-evident to anyone who thinks of organizing grassroots opposition to the occupation.
However, Geagea's activists have responded to this intimidation campaign by intensifying their cries for justice. In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of his imprisonment, LF activists in Lebanon and the Diaspora staged several mass demonstrations and organized petitions calling for Geagea's release that garnered nearly 160,000 signatures. The LF remains today the fastest growing political institution amongst the Christian students and professionals of Lebanon.
According to some reports, this growing domestic consensus has led American officials to begin pressing for Geagea's release. This would require either a special presidential pardon or a new general amnesty by parliament, neither of which can happen without explicit authorization from Damascus. Leaks to the press by political sources close to Syria suggest that a special presidential pardon that would restrict Geagea's political activity has been under consideration for some time. However, Geagea is rumored to have rejected any restrictions on his freedom of expression.
 See Lewis W. Snider, "The Lebanese Forces: Their Origins and Role in Lebanon's Politics," The Middle East Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 1984.
 Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993), p.301.
 Jonathan C. Randal, Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p.122.
 Muhamad Mugraby, "Lebanon, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary," Middle East Quarterly (Vol. 5, No. 1), March 1998, p.14.
 "Lebanon observes mourning day to protest church bombing," United Press International, 28 February 1994.
 United Press International, 23 March 1994.
 "Washington tight-lipped on Geagea to avoid jeopardizing its Mideast 'achievements'," Mideast Mirror, 27 April 1994.
 Al-Safir (Beirut), quoted in "Hrawi: Geagea could have redeemed himself by subscribing to the post-Taef arrangements," Mideast Mirror, 25 April 2004.
 Amnesty International, "'Lebanese Forces' Trial Seriously Flawed," 24 June 1995.
 "Justice holds death in the wings," The Independent, 27 January 1997.
 Stephen J. Stanton, Report and Analysis Concerning the Trial and Verdict of Samir Geagea and the Co-Accused in the Case of the Bombing of the Church of Sayyidat Al Najjat Zouk Mikayel, 20 November 1996.
 The ruling also noted the court's rejection of solid alibis by two defendants in the church bombing trial. A copy of this ruling can be downloaded in pdf format from the Lebanese Forces web site.
 Quoted in Mideast Mirror, 26 June 1995.
 Al-Safir (Beirut), 14 November 2002.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 19 April 2004.
 L'Orient Le Jour (Beirut), 12 June 2002, citing report by the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyasa.
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