Justice holds death in the wings

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The last time we saw Moeen Osseiran, he was lying - pale but smiling - on his bed in the American University Hospital, exhausted after another blood transfusion for his leukaemia. He knew he was dying but insisted on living life, asking about events in southern Lebanon, Bosnia, Algeria, and - far more important to him - turning up at the high court to fulfil his role as a judge of the Lebanese Third Appeal Chamber.

We gave him some copies of L'Express, Le Point, Paris-Match - his French was better than his English - and left him to what was his fifth and penultimate hospital visit before his final court appearance and his death.

A small, rather gruff man with old-fashioned manners, Moeen lived for the courts. In a land where - in the words of one local academic - officials have in the past proved themselves "professors of corruption", he was incorruptible. At the height of the 1975-1990 civil war, he could be found walking across the front line, under shell fire, from his home in west Beirut to the court chambers in the east. He refused a government-offered Mercedes, preferring his old Peugeot. For years, he declined a bodyguard, only accepting one in the last weeks of his life - provided the soldier never carried a gun. He even refused the small red badge on his registration plate that would have allowed him to overtake traffic jams and parking restrictions. "In the courts I am a judge, but in the street I am an ordinary man," he used to tell us.

Defendants and governments alike found Moeen Osseiran a prickly character. When the cabinet expected a guilty verdict in the case of Yahyia Chammas, an MP accused on drug-related charges, Moeen Osseiran ordered a re-trial. When the Americans expected a conviction of two men accused of kidnapping the US ambassador Melloy in 1976 - found murdered three days later - he freed both of them on the grounds that they were covered by a post- civil war amnesty, that they had not murdered the ambassador and that the real killer had died in a subsequent bomb explosion in Paris.

Moeen was a canny man who knew his politics. When the anti-Syrian Phalangist militia leader Samir Geagea was put on trial for his life, charged with the brutal killing of his Christian rival Dany Chamoun, Moeen declined the court headship -because his workload was "too heavy". Friends say he believed that however guilty Geagea proved to be, the case was political. But when we turned up for press passes to the Geagea trial and found ourselves stymied by unhelpful court bureaucrats, Moeen scribbled a tiny note and the same functionaries, awed by his signature, gave us permission in less than 30 seconds.

In his last days, he was confronted by lawyers acting for a financial institution accused of fraud who knew that he was dying of leukaemia. Indeed, in one of his last appearances, Moeen could be seen, sitting in his red, white and black judge's robes, wiping away a nosebleed as his brain haemorrhaged.

But, as the lawyers tried to spin out their case, the judge increased the speed of the hearings. And a few days before he died, Moeen was able to declare the bank guilty. Maybe his father Mounir, a Shia Muslim prelate, had something to do with it. "I know I am going to die and my conscience is clear," the 62-year-old judge told his family in the two years after his leukaemia was discovered.

He refused to die in hospital - he had a phobia of being slotted into a refrigerated mortuary - so he finally died in a coma in his own bed in his faded, noisy, almost street-level apartment off Corniche Mazraa, a judge to the very end. His military bodyguard, still unarmed, came to pay its respects. President Elias Hrawi bestowed upon Moeen a posthumous Commander of the Order of the Cedar, a kind of Lebanese OBE.

The Osseirans, it should be added, are as tough as they are principled. In Islamic tradition, the men accompany the dead to the cemetery while the women wail their ritual farewells from the balcony. But Moeen's eldest sister Amira - a black-cloaked lady in her eighties - hopped down the stairs after his coffin on the day of Moeen's final journey, jumped nimbly into the passenger seat of the hearse and refused to budge. "Let anyone dare stop me from accompanying my brother to his burial place," she shouted at the astonished mourners.

When the cortege arrived at the Zaatari mosque in Sidon - not far from Moeen's beloved orchards at the village of Sarafand - Amira and her younger sister Zeinab agreed to follow the Muslim custom of allowing only the men into the mosque for the final prayers over the body. But at the family plot on a tiny peninsula above the Mediterranean, Amira and Zeinab refused to be kept from the grave. Sheikh Abdul-Amir Kabalan insisted that they should return to their car but Amira muttered: "Sheikh or no sheikh, I'm going to be here."

And so she was, as one good man was laid to his eternal rest beside the shell-splintered gravestone of his cleric father.