Hangman stalks Phalange ex-chief: Robert Fisk writes from Beirut that Lebanese retribution is catching up with Samir Geagea

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The Independent Online
THEY hanged Bassam al-Muslah in Sidon just over five weeks ago. When the trapdoor failed to open, he had to wait while two prison guards climbed below the scaffold to open the trap manually. A week later, Abdul-Karim Hujayj and Mohamed Zatar, both Syrian soldiers, mounted the scaffold at Baabda. But one of the pulleys failed to work and, as one of the men began to strangle slowly, policemen tugged on his feet to end his agony. On Saturday, Chaker Breidi was put before a firing- squad in Chtaura. When the shots had been fired, Breidi was still alive; an officer delivered a coup de grace bullet in his head.

Amnesty International has condemned the executions as a 'violation of the fundamental right to human life' although few Lebanese showed much sympathy for the dead. Muslah had raped and murdered a three-year-old girl. The Syrians had killed two jewellers. Breidi had murdered three narcotics division police officers.

Most Lebanese questioned on television thought the executions necessary and only a 'temporary' phenomenon. What they did not say, however, is that each hanging brings the shadow of the noose closer to a small, bald-headed man with a thick moustache who sits in a cell beneath the Lebanese Ministry of Defence at Yarzeh.

Samir Geagea was the much- feared leader of the 'Lebanese Forces' who, like other ex-militia commanders, has plenty of civil war blood on his hands. The Lebanese Forces (alias the Phalange) slaughtered thousands of civilians - Lebanese and Palestinian - between 1975 and 1990. Mr Geagea's mistake, however, was to allow his men to continue killing after the Syrian-inspired government had declared an amnesty, a green line which pardoned all political violence up to the fall of General Michel Aoun in October 1990.

A week after Gen Aoun fled his bunker under Syrian air attack, Dany Chamoun - a Christian political leader hated by Mr Geagea - was murdered in his Beirut home, with his wife and two of his children. Christian suspicion pointed to Mr Geagea, but even this might have been overlooked had not a bomb exploded in the Maronite church at Zouk on 27 February this year, killing 11 worshippers. The Lebanese government swiftly concluded that the old Lebanese Forces were responsible and produced documents suggesting that Mr Geagea planned to stage a militia coup d'etat in the Christian hinterland of Kesrouan and to demand international help, on the grounds that the authorities could no longer protect the Christian community.

Within days, Mr Geagea's former military commander, Fouad Malek, was arrested. So were five ex-Lebanese Forces members who were charged with the church bombing. If convicted, four of them are almost certainly doomed to go to the scaffold. Then the army arrested Mr Geagea, who is now being questioned about Chamoun's murder. Christian sources say that Mr Geagea ordered an associate, Abi Saab, to carry out the Chamoun killings and then told two other Christian militiamen to murder Abi Saab. But, the story goes, the two secretly spared Abi Saab who has re- emerged to give state's evidence against Mr Geagea; when the ex- militia leader, blindfolded in a chair, heard the voice of the man he thought was long dead, he is said to have fainted.

What is certain is that the Lebanese Army blame Mr Geagea for the murder of at least 17 army officers, most of whom were shot down, unarmed, at the Sarba barracks north of Beirut during Gen Aoun's war against the Lebanese Forces in 1990. Although he has not been beaten or mistreated, Mr Geagea was taken to Sarba and spat at by enraged comrades of the dead soldiers.

French lawyers have already arrived in Beirut to defend Mr Geagea and Mr Malek and the trial could prove to be a political event in its own right. Mr Geagea may point out that the man whom Israel claims led the massacre of Sabra and Chatila Palestinians in 1982 is in the Lebanese government and that two other ex-militia leaders are cabinet ministers. He may ask why Hizbollah members who 'executed' a man in Baalbek earlier this year have not been charged with murder.

But Mr Geagea refused a job in the Lebanese government and his status as an ex-militia boss may not protect him. If Syrian soldiers can be hanged for murder in Lebanon, the government may ask, then why not Samir Geagea?

(Photograph omitted)