Radical Islamist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was sentenced to death Thursday by the Military Tribunal for his role in leading the deadly 2013 Abra clashes against the Lebanese Army. The firebrand preacher was on trial alongside 33 other men on terrorism charges at the tribunal headed by Brig. Gen. Hussein Abdullah. The prosecution argued that Assir had rallied his followers to attack the Lebanese Army in 2013 leading to dayslong fighting that left 18 soldiers and 40 loyalists of the sheikh dead.
The court convicted Assir, who did not attend the sentencing, of possession of weapons and pre-meditated murder of soldiers. He was also accused of forming armed groups to undermine state authority and inciting sectarianism.
Although he was sentenced to death, Lebanon has maintained an effective moratorium on carrying out executions since 2004. Individuals sentenced to death effectively serve life sentences, although there have been recent calls to reinstate the punishment.
Disgraced former Lebanese singer Fadl Shaker, who supported Assir, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. He is hiding in south Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
During an earlier session Thursday, Assir said that he refused “to recognize the court or its verdict” and accused the institution of being a puppet of Iran.
Approaching the desk where Military Tribunal court-appointed lawyer Elie Abou Jaoude was seated, Assir said: “You do not represent me and I do not recognize you. This court is subject to the hegemony of Iran and its allies and it is best if you don’t know me.”
After Abdullah intervened, Assir said that he was “not threatening anyone, but it is my right – as I am representing myself – to advise you not to speak in my name.”
During the hearing on Sept. 13, Brig. Gen. Abdullah adjourned the trial and appointed a new court-assigned defense team. The move came after a string of hearings had to be abandoned due to procedural delays by Assir’s defense team or them simply failing to appear in court.
His lawyers argued Thursday that Assir had not personally opened fire on the military checkpoint and should, therefore, be spared a harsh sentence.
A tape allegedly attesting to Hezbollah’s involvement in sparking the Abra clashes was also presented as exonerating evidence. Assir has long claimed that Hezbollah played a crucial role in sparking the clashes and therefore should also be investigated.
The court also listened to the pleas from the other detainees, the majority of whom pleaded innocent.
Also present in court were the sheikh’s brother, Amjad al-Assir, and his two sons, Mohammad and Omar, who stand accused of organizing an armed group.
The prisoners on trial alongside Assir lamented the accusations against them, claiming that the charges were unfounded. They argued that had they taken part in fighting they would have fled the country rather than carrying on with their normal lives.
Assir’s co-defendants were handed sentences of between one and 15 years in prison with hard labor. Several received seven-year sentences.
Assir was detained at Beirut airport in August 2015 wearing a disguise and using a fake passport, after having been on the run since the incident.
Little known outside Sidon until shortly before the clashes, Assir rose to prominence on the back of fiery anti-Hezbollah rhetoric at a time of heightened Sunni-Shiite tensions over the nearby Syrian conflict. Assir regularly lambasted Hezbollah’s intervention to prop-up the regime in Damascus and what he claimed was the Army’s failure to protect Lebanon’s Sunnis. The preacher is also accused of sending followers to join rebels in Syria in response to Hezbollah’s intervention. Rabia al-Naqouzi, accused of being a follower of Assir, appeared in court to ask to be reunited with his family and demanded restitution over a bicycle – a word he mispronounced in court – which he said had been confiscated by the army. He was sentenced to 10 years with hard labor.
Teacher Mohammad Wehbe, who was sentenced to five years, said his devotion to education and religion was proof of his innocence and argued he was only to be blamed for having exchanged text messages with some of the people involved.
The defendants’ lawyers filed a complaint to the U.N. Wednesday, demanding the military court throw out the case over the failure to provide a fair trial. The legal teams also presented evidence that was rejected by the court.
As the verdict was announced, families and friends of the accused who had gathered in Sidon’s Nejmeh Square broke out in shouts and tears before blocking roads. This prompted Internal Security Forces and the Army to intervene to reopen the thoroughfare. The protesters claimed that the Abra clashes had been fomented by Hezbollah and that the accused were scapegoats.
Assir’s wife, Amal Shamseddine, spoke from the protest to say that the death penalty had been decided even before the trial as “[political and religious] cover was taken off him [Assir] and today the Military Tribunal continued this soap opera.”