Outraged by the Military Tribunal’s decision to release former Information Minister Michel Samaha on bail, the Future Movement and its March 14 allies pledged Sunday to challenge the release, which has sent shockwaves nationwide, threatening to cause further political and sectarian splits.
In addition to calls for the abolition or modification of the Military Tribunal’s jurisdiction, March 14 leaders demanded that Samaha’s release be referred to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial body which looks into crimes that threaten state security and its verdicts cannot be appealed.
While public protests denouncing Samaha’s release continued for the fourth day Sunday in the northern city of Tripoli and the Akkar town of Halba, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on Lebanon’s courts, judges and lawyers to observe a minute of silence at 12 p.m. Monday to protest the court’s decision.
“We want to say all of us with one voice: No to the release of criminal Michel Samaha who, unfortunately and shamefully, when he walked out of prison, the Military Tribunal which released him, entered [prison] and took his place,” Siniora said, flanked by a number of March 14 lawmakers, including Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb, who gathered in front of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s grave in Beirut Saturday in a show of solidarity against Samaha’s release.
“We will not allow the crime of Samaha’s release to pass, while many others languish in prison merely on the basis of suspicions,” Siniora said. “The Military Tribunal’s decision will only betray the blood of heroic martyrs and encourage the continuation of killings and assassination.
“Therefore, we will continue our struggle until this criminal [Samaha] and others get their just punishment along with other criminals who assassinated our great men,” he added, referring to the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri and a number of March 14 figures, for which the coalition blamed Syria.
Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, lashed out at the Military Tribunal’s decision to release Samaha. “This step smudged this tribunal’s reputation and undermined the prestige of the Lebanese sovereign institutions and dealt a crushing blow to the Lebanese people.”
“The Lebanese people were right when they decided to seek the assistance of the international judiciary because they were afraid that justice would not be attained through Lebanese institutions,” Siniora added, in a reference to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is trying suspects in the assassination of Hariri and 21 others. Five Hezbollah members have been indicted in the case.
Siniora denounced Samaha as “a public criminal” who was convicted in a terror plot with video recordings to incite strife.
He implicitly accused the Military Tribunal of falling under Hezbollah’s influence. “We will not allow these courts, that let the party of arms [Hezbollah] to influence them, to operate.”
Siniora voiced his support for a proposal by Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi to modify the Military Tribunal’s jurisdiction, which would include an article pertaining to the establishment of specialized courts that look into terror cases. The bid will also contain an article banning the trial of any civilian before the Military Tribunal.
Rifi was reported to be preparing to file a request to the Cabinet demanding that Samaha’s case be referred to the Judicial Council, as well as proposing the modification of the Military Tribunal’s prerogatives. “I will not back down until Samaha’s case is referred to the Judicial Council. This is not only my case, it’s the case of Lebanon’s dignity and justice to preserve the blood of martyrs,” Rifi said in remarks published by Al-Joumhouria newspaper.
A similar demand was made by Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea.
“If those who are defending Samaha’s release are saying that they only want justice and law, what would harm them if they vote inside the Cabinet on referring this case to the Judicial Council because it is the highest judicial authority in Lebanon?” Geagea tweeted.
The Military Tribunal’s decision to release Samaha on a LL150 million ($100,000) bail last Thursday, has drawn the ire of the March 14 coalition. The decision has also sparked fresh calls by Sunni preachers for the release of hundreds of Islamist prisoners held for years without trial on terror charges as part of a general amnesty. Samaha’s release has also led to the temporary closure of vital roads in Beirut and Tripoli in the past few days.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish lashed back at March 14 politicians for denouncing Samaha’s release, equating their reactions to Daesh (ISIS) actions.
“There is a real problem in the performance of some [March 14 groups] with regard to Michel Samaha’s release, whereby we are faced with a case of political Daesh in Lebanon which does not accept the others and seeks to vilify them without presenting any evidence,” Fneish said during a ceremony in south Lebanon.
Fneish, one of two ministers representing Hezbollah in the Cabinet, called on the March 14 coalition to respect the judiciary’s verdict and avoid “intimidation.” “There is another stage which includes a verdict. How can there be confidence in the face of this intimidation you are exercising on the judiciary,” he asked.
Samaha was arrested in August 2012 and convicted last year by the Military Tribunal on terrorism charges after being recorded by an undercover police informant admitting to smuggling explosives from Syria into Lebanon with the intent of targeting religious and political figures in the north.
He was sentenced to four and half years in prison, but the verdict was annulled after an appeal was filed following complaints from March 14 politicians that his sentence was too light.
The Military Court of Cassation unanimously agreed to release Samaha on bail but he was banned from leaving the country or speaking to the media pending a verdict after his retrial.
Several hundred supporters of March 14 parties protested outside Samaha’s home in Beirut Friday to denounce his release.
The March 14 youth organizations called for a sit-in outside Al-Salam Mosque in Tripoli at 6 p.m. Monday to condemn Samaha’s release and demand that his case be referred to the Judicial Council.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Islamist inmates held at the Roumieh Prison Sunday temporarily suspended their hunger strike they began Friday to protest Samaha’s release following a meeting between the advisers of the interior and justice ministers with a delegation representing the prisoners.
“We don’t want food. We want a general amnesty,” the inmates shouted as the two ministers’ advisers left Block B at Roumieh Prison.