ZAHLE, LEBANON, March 5 — This observer had a wild day in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley yesterday. Then again, for one reason or another, it seems that every time I go to the Bekaa it turns into a wild day.
It was to be a quick trip to the city of Zahle to attend a trial of a friend in the Mahkama Genaeya (Criminal Court). All I had to do was make a brief appearance to testify as a character witness for a member of the Bekaa Valley’s largest tribe. The defendant is a sometime journalist who has done plenty of favors for visiting Americans over the past few years at my request. When delegations of Yanks arrive in Lebanon, I am sometimes asked if I could help arrange meetings with political leaders, a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, perhaps a trip to the south or to the amazing Bekaa Valley. It’s a fact that I don’t think much of US government policy and actions in this region, but frankly I do like fellow Americans quite a lot and try to assist them with contacts whenever I can.
My friend X is always happy to receive people I send to him, is unfailingly generous with his time and hospitality, including home-cooked meals with local delicacies, and often as not becomes friends with many of the Americans he meets. Frankly, I didn’t want to take the time yesterday to hop a van to the Bekaa Valley because, like many here, I have been swamped with work. Yet I felt indebted to my friend, and, anyhow, his lawyer convinced me (as every Lebanese consistently convinces me that they are telling the truth—so very persuasive these people are!) that the trial would be quick because everything had been “arranged.” What he meant was that the key government witness, the only witness in this simple drug buy case, after having signed a Prosecution document that five years ago he bought some ‘red bud’ (fine Bekaa Hashish, locals claim) from my friend X. It took the case nearly five years to come to trial. The witness, from the Bekaa’s second largest tribe, which sometimes has beefs with X’s tribe, recently realized that the drug pusher named Mr. X, while in fact having the same name as my friend was in fact a difference person altogether. My friend is tall, heavy, and light-skinned, and the witness said his dealer was short, skinny and dark. So there was no government case after all and there would be “no problem.” I have learned the hard and slow way that when anyone in Lebanon says there is “no problem” it’s a sure sign that there might be “a big problem.”
All I had to do was tell the court that Mr. X had helped several Americans, during their visits “to the beautiful Bekaa valley”, had “fostered improved relations between the American and Lebanese people”, and if released from custody, X would continue his “good works benefiting both countries.” All true enough.
By the time I arrived at the Zahle Courthouse, I was happy that I could be of some help; plus it was a beautiful warm March day, with buds beginning to swell on the fruit trees, bright yellow forsythia blooming, steam rising from the just plowed rich brown soil fields, which feed Lebanon today as they fed Roman legions two millennia ago and many other invaders before and since. Spring was bursting out all over.
I entered the second floor of the fine French style edifice with 20 foot ceilings, found the right courtroom and took a seat in the back.
The Lebanese legal system is supposed to be based on the French system; there was no jury, only a single judge, his clerk and the Prosecutor, all decked out in really nice long black robes, with white ruffled bodice from under the chin plus bright red swatches of fabric down either side. The lawyers for the 30 or so criminal defendants who were sardine-canned inside the iron-barred cage near the ornate podium where the judge sat, wore similar garb, and sat on plain benches in three rows in front of the judge. Opposite the cage sat the prosecutor, who alternately glared at the teeming, sweating humanity and seemed to mutter to himself and periodically doze off.
I was taken aback when X’s lawyer rose and whispered something to the judge, who then summoned me to come forward. Apparently my friend’s lawyer has exaggerated a little bit about who I was, what my role was to be, and he told the Judge that “a famous American lawyer had arrived to assist him with Mr. X’s case.” I was speechless when the Judge graciously offered me an advocate’s robe to wear and felt like a total fraud as the trial got underway, seated at the defense counsel bench. I was fuming at being put into this position by X and his lawyer.
I soon got over my anger and entered a state of total shock and numbed disbelief at what happened next. Long story short, never had I seen anything like it in an American courtroom. I scowled at my friend X in the cage while he grinned back with delight as did his family members in the courtroom.
My guy’s case was called. The prosecutor says nothing. The judge, who is a complete look-alike for “Archie Bunker” with Archie’s exact expressions and gestures, asks the State’s witness his name. The witness, according to my interpreter, then swore on the Holy Koran, his mother, and his children that the prosecutor had the wrong Mr. X and that he had never bought hashish from my friend and in fact had never seen him in his life.
Since everyone knows everyone in the Bekaa, or so it seems to outsiders, the judge seemed to go berserk. Instantly red-faced and snarling, he screamed at the witness, shouted that he was lying and would be going to jail himself. Watching this, the prosecutor came alive and yelled over the judge’s voice, motioned the defense lawyer to “Akhrss” (shut up) and he also swore to jail the witness and, according to my interpreter, called the witness’ sister a whore. The witness immediately wanted to fight the prosecutor, as did some tribe members seated in the courtroom. About 20 uniformed security guys tried to calm everyone including the Judge, prosecutor and the lawyers.
The Judge and the Prosecutor were furious, refused the sworn testimony, and continued the case for three months. The courtroom security put cuffs on the “false witness” and shoved him inside the defendant’s cage to remain apparently until his memory improved. My friend’s lawyer, sitting next to me, protested to the court that the judge was “pushing” the witness. The judge told him to “Akhrss” (shut up) ordered him out of the courtroom and fired the family paid lawyer from the case.
As I quickly exited the courtroom, the corridor had become bedlam. Relatives, friends, other lawyers, court security, all seeming to agree that the Judge exceeded his powers and “a fast Court appeal” (huge oxymoron in Lebanon’s judiciary as in most others!) was needed. The family of Mr. X consulted with tribal representatives, and they decided that a political solution was the best way to settle this case. The tribe of X would meet with the sect of the Judge and try finishing the case through dialogue. Clearly, any judicial system’s black letter law would demand that X immediately walks and the ‘false witness’ is sprung. At the moment both are still locked down tight.
Riding the “express” van back to Beirut and reflecting on what I had witnessed, I couldn’t help thinking about the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and the past couple of weeks of maneuvering by those seemingly trying to use the STL for political advantage more than justice.
Under American pressure, former, now caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri is exhibiting new resolve and toughness that his Sunni supporters had hoped he would have shown when he was Prime Minister. His gloves are off and the pro-US March 14th team is so far boycotting the new government and revealing that the STL may be used politically above all else. Hariri almost daily attacks Hezbollah’s arsenal, saying the group’s arsenal has become a national problem poisoning the political and cultural life in Lebanon and that the issue needed a “national solution”. Hariri also accused Hezbollah of using its weapons internally in the past three years to influence political disputes in its favor. Hariri has decided that the annual commemoration of the founding of the March 14 group’s “Cedar Revolution” this year will be a popular referendum on the arms of the resistance, although many thought the issue was settled by the 2009 Government Policy Statement which accepted them.
It appears that any pretense of progress via dialogue over the past few years is now discarded and it’s once again an all-out struggle between the U.S. backed March 14th minority and the new majority, March 8th alliance.
In the run up to publishing the indictments, which could happen as early as next week, it’s getting wild in Lebanon and in The Hague.
According to media sources, the pro-US team encouraged the timing and content of the visit of senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman and signaled the launch of the latest US-Israel anti-Resistance project which is to raise repeatedly the subject of Hezbollah weapons. The plan is that the US team will either join the cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati based on the 3+1 formula or intensify its attacks on Hezbollah by criticizing its ideology and claiming that it’s not really Lebanese at all but rather a tool of outsiders.
The March 14 campaign has begun to target international public opinion in order to influence the decision in some countries and international institutions including the STL. March 14 will use a daily sit-in at Martyrs’ Square to pressure the new government and is reportedly planning to bus youngsters to the area and establish a live in campsite—the same project they criticized Hezbollah for after the 2006 war.
The pro-US team has now launched the anticipated Arab and international media campaign to focus on the “seriousness of the Hezbollah weapons, and their threat to international security and stability as well as Security Council warnings arranged from Washington that will be serious consequences for Lebanon’s “failure to cooperate with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” in order to pre-empt any position that may be taken by Mikati’s cabinet in declaring its noncooperation with the STL.
STL Prosecutor Danial Bellemare, some say as part of a US-Israel project, after submitting his first batch of indictments is now requesting massive additional “post investigation” evidence from Lebanon. The past few days have seen a blizzard of activity. According to media sources, vast amounts of telecommunications data going back to 2004 are suddenly being demanded as well as the finger prints of some four million people in Lebanon that includes essentially all the Lebanese.
Many legal questions are surfacing, including whether the new parliament, when it sits, must approve these requests and that the four now caretaker ministers correctly declined to supply the information the STL prosecutor requested.
MP Mohammad Raad, leader of the Hezbollah Loyalty to the Resistance bloc held a news conference on March 3 and insisted that Lebanon’s cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon be terminated. Said Raad: “The memoranda of understanding between all Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) agencies and Lebanon should be frozen until the formation of a new cabinet that decides on them. STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare’s requests for information from Lebanese authorities are the greatest operation of tutelage and piracy that modern Lebanon has witnessed. It violates all standards of justice, general freedoms, and human rights.” Raad added, “Nothing obliges a minister or any official in the country to deal with memoranda whose legitimacy and constitutionality is under discussion.”
Raad also expressed Hezbollah’s fears that the information requested by the tribunal could be relayed to intelligence agencies or leaked to the public, adding that “these suspicious requests carry the quality of intelligence work…. Bellmare’s office has not yet answered our question about whether the investigation has received any of its information via Israeli intelligence.” Raad ridiculed Bellemare for asking for the fingerprints of all the Lebanese, including the president, current and former officials, sheikhs, nuns and priests: “Who can give us guarantees that the data requested by Bellemare would not be delivered to Israeli intelligence services?” , he asked.
It is clear proceedings get a bit wild in the Zahle Courthouse. They also appear to be getting out of control at the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, suggesting that dialogue and a political solution from within Lebanon may be the best solution for all those directly concerned with Justice and not political hegemony in Lebanon.