Out of Lebanon: Coils of intrigue behind 'back to hanging' call

BEIRUT - Bahij Tabara, the Lebanese Justice Minister, walked into a cabinet meeting this week with a grim proposal: to revive the death penalty for premeditated murder.

A strange project, you might think. After 150,000 dead in 15 years of civil war not a soul was tried for murder. Capital punishment, annulled in 1965, was only briefly resurrected for the hanging of a deranged mass murderer in 1983.

What has concentrated the cabinet's mind is the aftermath of the bombing at the church in Zouk Mikael early last week, when 10 Christian Maronites were cut down at Communion by explosives hidden beneath a statue of the Virgin. Security officials had been expecting such an atrocity since the Pope's 29 May visit to Lebanon was announced, but the massacre at Zouk did more than kill a group of innocent Lebanese worshippers. It re- awoke the sectarian ghosts that were supposed to have been buried in the ruins of the civil war.

Post-war violence had hitherto been a rare phenomenon. But over the past year, a number of incidents have deeply troubled the Lebanese authorities and their mentors in Syria. Christian cemeteries in the Metn hills have been desecrated. An unexploded bomb was found at the convent of Balamand, site of the ancient Maronite college. Then the Christian Phalangist headquarters in Beirut was blown up, killing two men and wounding 130 civilians.

And towards the end of last year attacks were made against Syrian troops in Lebanon. In October, a Syrian soldier was shot dead at a checkpoint at Jamhour, another wounded at Shweifat. That same night, Syrian troops seized 25 Maronite men, most of them supporters of the exiled and anti- Syrian General Michel Aoun, whose expulsion from the presidential palace two years before had ended the civil war. The Christians were taken to military intelligence headquarters and, according to their lawyer, severely beaten before being freed. At the same time, Aounist tracts were found on walls in Christian east Beirut. There were more arrests. In what appears to have been a quite separate development, at least two Christians were accused of trying to assassinate President Elias Hrawi.

Then in January, the Jordanian embassy's first secretary in Beirut, Naeb Maaytah, was murdered outside his home. King Hussein claimed it was the work of an unnamed 'outside power'. The Aounists, who hate their fellow Christians of the Phalange almost as much as they do Syria, alleged that Damascus was behind the killing, on the grounds that it did not like the relations Jordan appeared to be cementing with Israel. The Syrians said they were searching for the killers; and Lebanese police later arrested three Palestinians whom they accused of working for Abu Nidal's assassination squads. Abu Nidal's notorious outfit has in the past worked for Iraq, Syria and Libya. But on neat, headed notepaper, Abu Nidal's men denied involvement.

And then came the church bombing. Rafiq Hariri's pro- Syrian government claimed it was the work of 'Israeli agents'. But the Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, speaking only feet from the coffins of the church victims, responded differently. If the government could not look after the people, he suggested, then the people, the Christians, must be allowed to protect themselves. It sounded like a coded appeal to the government to allow the Christian Phalangist militia back on to the streets, especially when Patriarch Sfeir went on to ask why, in contrast to the Phalange, some militias (i e Hizbollah) had 'still not been disarmed'.

Walid Jumblatt, old enemy of the Phalange and leader of the Druze community, smelt 'partitionists' in the air - and received a tirade from the Phalange, who retorted that Mr Jumblatt's long-term goal was 'to destroy Lebanon'. Mr Jumblatt's suspicion, of course, was that a Christian group may have planted the bomb to prove the Lebanese government powerless - and so justify the return of the Christian militias to 'defend' their people. If he was right - and there was no evidence that he was - then perhaps another Christian group planted the bomb at Balamand, even desecrated a Christian cemetery. And how much more impotent would the government appear if the Pope decided to cancel his visit to Lebanon? He has so far refused to do so.

It is to Rafiq Hariri's credit that Lebanon can now absorb violence that three years ago might have re-ignited the civil war. But in two years' time General Aoun's forced exile will expire and he will return to Lebanon, ready to capitalise on any anarchy he finds, to oppose both the Syrians and his old Phalangist antagonists. The Lebanese government has until then to show that crime doesn't pay; which is why 'bring back hanging' turned up on the cabinet's agenda.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions