Militiaman plays to the gallery

Murder trial becomes a farce
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HE WALKED into the dock like a prizefighter, dressed in a militiaman's off-duty fatigues of red leather jacket and jeans, blowing so many kisses at his 121 black-robed lawyers that they rose to their feet, clapped their hands and roared their approval. His chic, neatly coiffured young wife, Setrita, dressed in a smart checked suit with ruffled sleeves, beamed up at her Christian militia hero from the front row. If guilt or contrition nestled in Samir Geagea's soul yesterday, there was no trace of it in the Beirut Supreme Court.

While 30 Lebanese commandoes with automatic rifles stood around the courtroom, the man who once led Lebanon's most powerful private army sat impassively as the indictment against him and 12 other defendants was read by Judge Philippe Khairallah.

Mr Geagea's lawyers stood with equal indifference around the walls of the court as terrible stories unfolded; of 11 Christians blown to pieces in a Maronite church at Zouk on 27 January, of bombs planted by gunmen dressed as priests, of secret meetings between Mr Geagea's officers and Israeli intelligence men in Tel Aviv and Nazareth, of the murder of Mr Geagea's Phalange rival Dany Chamoun, along with his young wife Ingrid and two of his four children, one of them shot down as he tried to defend his father.

Mr Chamoun's daughter Tracy, the child of an earlier marriage, was sitting in the front row, blond hair cascading over her shoulders, as demurely dressed as Mrs Geagea, sitting two seats from her. She did not cast a single glance at the wife of the man accused of murdering her father, but stared hard at Mr Geagea as if trying to penetrate those big, dull eyes. Only when asked to identify himself before the court did the former commander of the Maronite Lebanese Forces' militia show any emotion. ``My name is Samir Fouad Geagea,'' he said. ``I was born in 1952 at Bcharre.'' At which point, from hundreds of Christians who had driven down from Bcharre for the trial, there came more of applause.

``What is your job?'' Judge Khairallah asked him. ``I used to be a medical student and then I went into politics. I was appointed a government minister twice.'' And what was his address? ``I used to live in Verdress,'' Mr Geagea replied, breaking into a grin, ``but now I don't know where I live.''

There was uproar. Mr Geagea's defence team clapped and raised their fists in support of their client - in much the same way as Mr Geagea's Phalangists had once done when a uniformed Mr Geagea appeared before them. Hundreds of Maronites in the courtroom shouted with them until Judge Khairallah's gavel slammed down. ``Anybody who applauds will go outside,'' he shouted. ``This is not a theatre.''

A theatre, however, is what Mr Geagea's men intended it to be. They roared their support because they believe that the defendant's current address - a cell in the Lebanese Ministry of Defence - is contrary to Article 94 of the Lebanese legal code and they argued, in complex detail, that he should have been held in a civil prison, that they should have been given greater access to their client than the 30-minute supervised meetings they had been permitted.

Judge Khairallah overruled them all as Mounir Oweidat, the state prosecutor, dismissed Mr Geagea's incarceration in the Defence Ministry. ``This is a case that concerns not only us but our society. It is part of our history. . . the victims also have a case and they have a right to know what happened.''

What happened, of course, was that Mr Geagea refused to give up his fight for the Maronite leadership after the civil war amnesty ended in 1990 - and thus finds himself facing the death penalty on charges brought by the Syrian-backed government he refused to join.

In the years following the war, Mr Geagea was regarded as ``Israel's man'' in Lebanon; his militiamen used to wear Israeli army uniforms. They also used to march, armed and glaring, into any room in which their leader was speaking; which is how Mr Geagea's lawyers, unarmed but equally glaring, marched by the dozen into the Beirut supreme court.

The church-bells of Bcharre have been ringing in support of the town's most famous - or infamous - son for a week, though there were Christians in the courtroom yesterday for whom the bells sounded cracked. ``This is a game,'' a Maronite journalist muttered as Mr Geagea's defence team refused to sit down. ``Dany Chamoun was a wise man. Murdering his family was a serious affair.'' Mr Geagea's wife did not vouchsafe her own views. ``We shall have to wait and see if justice is done,'' she said, shaking hands as if greeting friends at a cocktail party. And how did she feel? ``What do you mean?'' she laughed. ``Look at me and my make-up!''