The August 7 arrest of Toufic Hindi, an advisor to the movement's jailed leader, Samir Geagea, and a handful of other high-ranking LF officials initially appeared to be a footnote to the massive crackdown that mainly targeted members of the secular Free National Current (FNC), headed by exiled former Prime Minister Michel Aoun. Although the LF has staunchly opposed the Syrian presence in recent years, the FNC's multi-sectarian constituency and broad appeal to all sectors of civil society has made it a much greater threat to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.
It soon became clear, however, that Hindi's arrest was not an afterthought, but a calculated move by the regime to discredit all opponents of the Syrian occupation as "stooges" of Israel. According to an informed source, the Lebanese intelligence services had learned of Hindi's contacts with Israel several weeks beforehand through an LF informant, but waited to act upon them until the August 7 arrest sweep.
On August 12, the Lebanese army released a statement saying that Hindi had confessed to contacting Israeli officials and released a video of his questioning by Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum. While the sound quality of the video was poor, it appeared to corroborate the allegation.
According to the Lebanese army statement, Hindi stated that he traveled to Paris in April and contacted former LF colleagues Joseph Jbeili and Ghassan Touma. During his visit, Hindi purchased a cell phone and gave the number to Touma, who passed it on to Odid Zarai, a media advisor to Uri Lubrani, Israel's primary coordinator of activities in Lebanon during the occupation. The statement said that Zarai spoke with Hindi over the phone in May and urged him to launch anti-Syrian protests and pressure Syria to stop authorizing Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms area.
Lebanese Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum later said that the interrogation of Hindi revealed that he had not only met with Zarai several times in Paris, but had met with Lubrani himself about two months ago.1
The Investigation Widens
On August 16, plainclothes Lebanese intelligence officers in Ballouneh arrested Antoine Georges Bassil, a journalist for the Saudi-owned London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). Bassil had formerly worked for Middle East TV, a pro-Israeli television station run by the now defunct South Lebanon Army (SLA). According to Lebanese military sources, Bassil had been arranging meetings between Hindi and Zarai, as well as other Israeli officials, "on a regular basis over the past few years."2 Judicial officials later said that Bassil confessed to exchanging coded letters with Zarai by telex and the Internet, discussing a wide range of political and military developments, including opposition to Syria and Hezbollah. Bassil reportedly told investigators that the LF "chose to collaborate with the Jewish state after fears that former LF official Fouad Malek, who showed signs of taking a pro-government stance, would take control of the disbanded militia."
During his interrogation, Bassil reportedly implicated Habib Younis, the Beirut bureau chief of Al-Hayat, who was promptly arrested at his house in Jbeil on the evening of August 18. According to army intelligence sources, Younis was preparing to leave for the airport to board a flight bound for Cyprus, where he was allegedly planning to meet with Zarai. However, Al-Hayat declared that the charges were "untrue," saying that Younis was on assignment in Beirut for the weekend.3
On August 20, security forces stormed a vacation cabin in the summer resort of Safra Marine and arrested Claude Hajjar, a prominent human rights activist and environmentalist, and her 22-year old daughter Jennifer (who was subsequently released). According to "informed" military sources cited in the Lebanese press, Hajjar attended an April 14 meeting in Cyprus with Zarai, Younis, and Saqr.5
On August 23, a Lebanese merchant was arrested on charges of having "commercial connections" with Zarai. According to judicial sources, Jamal Hashem Nasser met with Zarai in Paris and the two concocted a scheme to import the Israeli-made "Botex" brand of women's clothes into Lebanon by replacing the labels. The sources did not say whether Nasser's contacts with Zarai were connected with those of the other suspects.
Meanwhile, Hindi was referred to Beirut's military court for trial after spending 11 days in solitary confinement at the defense ministry in Yarze and formally charged with collaborating with Israel, a capital offense. Judicial officials also indicted two other senior LF officials arrested during the August 7 raid, Salman Samaha and attorney Elie Keyrouz, who they said were aware of Hindi's meetings with the Israelis and failed to inform the authorities about them.
Were the Confessions Coerced?
As the investigation into Hindi's alleged contacts with Israel moved from the basement of the defense ministry to the courtroom, most of the defendants retracted their "confessions," raising questions about whether the alleged conspiracy had been entirely concocted by the authorities. When Hindi was questioned in the presence of his lawyer, Charles Harb, after his formal indictment, the LF official adamantly denied that he had met with either Zarai or Lubrani and said that his previous confession was made under duress.
Younis denied having made a confession when he appeared in court on August 23 after nearly a week of interrogation by military officers. Younis "did not collaborate with anyone against his country, be it an Israeli or otherwise," said the journalist's lawyer, Riad Matar, shortly afterwards.6
Hajjar, who was released on August 22 but was said by investigators to have implicated Younis during her interrogation, adamantly denied that she had participated in meetings with Israeli officials. "I have never seen an Israeli in my life, except on TV," she told the Daily Star. "I only went to Cyprus to visit Saqr, because they (the Saqr family) are my best friends. Aren't we allowed to visit our friends anymore?" Hajjar claimed to have been subjected to "enormous" psychological pressure. "In three days, I was interrogated by eight people, about three times each," she said.7
While MEIB's sources in Beirut say that most of the suspects have probably met with Israeli officials in the past, this is most likely the result of desperation, not coherent planning. Few put much stock in claims by security and judicial officials that a significant Israeli-LF plot was in the works. "Certainly the Israelis would never plan or reveal anything of substance to their LF contacts," said one informed source. "This would be like picking up the phone and telling Lebanese and Syrian intelligence about it directly . . . the LF is very divided right now and there are too many loose lips."
1 Al-Safir (Beirut), 17 August 2001.
2 Tele-Liban TV (Beirut), 18 August 2001.
3 Al-Hayat (London), 19 August 2001.
4 The Daily Star (Beirut), 24 August 2001.
5 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 23 August 2001.
6 Al-Hayat (London), 24 August 2001.
7 The Daily Star (Beirut), 24 August 2001.