Case of murdered US envoy takes a leisurely turn

Victim of Lebanon's civil war still unavenged after 19 years, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut
It was not the finest moment of Lebanese justice. Nineteen years ago, President Gerald Ford had demanded that the Palestinians who murdered the US ambassador to Lebanon, his economic counsellor and his driver be brought to justice.

And on the fourth floor of the Beirut High Court yesterdayJudge Moeen Osseiran sat in his red robes, a clutch of press photographers beside the dock, a huddle of men and women outside the doors - witnesses to the kidnapping of Francis Melloy in the early months of the Lebanese civil war. For all of 25 minutes, we waited, until it was announced that neither the two Palestinians accused of the killings nor their lawyers would be in court for the hearing.

Judge Osseiran,a man who forgoes even the official driver with which the state could provide him, glared down at the empty benches. He had already waited for 10 minutes in his chambers in the hope that the defendants would appear. But then a policeman arrived to announce that "we might not be able to bring them today". Bassim Mohamed al-Farkh and Namiq Ahmed Kamal, it turned out, were still on their way from Roumieh prison, north of Beirut. One of their lawyers was out of town; another simply failed to turn up. Judge Osseiran publicly admonished him by name. "They haven't arrived yet but we are here," he snapped impatiently. To no avail.

There was talk outside the court of a shortage of policemen, rumours that the one-day-a-week trial of the former Christian militia leader Samir Geagea on charges of blowing up a church and murdering a Christian rival, Dany Chamoun, in 1990, had used up too many security men.

There were questions as to why the current US charg d'affaires in Lebanon, Ron Schlicher, had visited the Lebanese Justice Ministry the day before the trial. Did the Americans want to extradite the two Palestinians before the Beirut hearing got under way? We were to hear the excuses later.

Melloy's murder, with his counsellor, Robert Waring, and his Lebanese driver, Mohamed Moghrabi, shocked the United States when their bodies were foundon a Beirut beach on 16 June 1976. It was the first overtly anti-American act of the civil warand Yasser Arafat, whose PLO controlled west Beirut at the time, promised to hunt down the murderers. He failed and it was not until last year that Mr Farkh and Mr Kamal were first brought before a Beirut court, charged with kidnapping - but not murdering - Melloy and his colleagues. Both men, it transpired, belonged to George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group under the PLO's umbrella but not under Mr Arafat's direct control.

Mr Farkh and Mr Kamal said at the time they were unaware their victim was an ambassador, claiming they had not noticed his armoured limousine - in which he was crossing the front line from west to east Beirut - nor the US flag on the car, the radios in the vehicle nor the driver, who was yelling in Arabic that the victim was the US ambassador. Their orders, they said, had been only to drive the hostages to a PFLP office in the Ras al-Naba district. The defendants, who gave no clue as to the reason for Melloy's abduction and murder, were sentenced, respectively, to imprisonment for five years and 12 months.

The convictions were subsequently set aside so that new charges of murder could be brought.Washington, in any case, had been pressing the Lebanese authorities to bring to justice all those who had kidnapped or killed US citizens during thecivil war, including those responsible for the suicide bombing of the USMarine base in 1983and for the abduction of Americans, the longest of whom was held for almost seven years.

The Beirut government, which is anxious to persuade Washington to lift its travel ban on Americans visiting Lebanon, has sought to prove that law an order have been restored to the country. Yesterday might therefore have proved to be a cause clbre. But it was not to be.

The Americans, who might have been expected to show some interest in the case of their murdered ambassador, did not even bother to send an embassy diplomat to Judge Osseiran's court.

Did they know in advance that it was going to be a "no show''? The judge certainly did not. Two hoursafter he abandoned the sitting, the prisoners turned up. They had been caught in a traffic jam with theirpolice escort, we were told.

Judge Osseiran did not say whether he believed this. The hearing would be resumed, he said irritably, on 7 June. Which left a lot of questions - political as well as criminal - unanswered.